Have You Tried Ghazni Pickles? An Afghan Food Producer Ponders Packaging and BrandingPublished: March 07, 2011
In East Afghanistan, on the road between Kabul and Kandahar, lies the Ghazni province, a region known for its rich lithium deposits, gold and copper, as well as its tough Taliban control, particularly in the rural areas outside of the capital, Ghazni City. "Movement in Ghazni is very restricted," says Masooda Wahidi, a 27-year-old Ghazni City resident and graduate of the 2009 Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women training program at the American University of Afghanistan.
Despite her limiting surroundings, Wahidi wants to fly -- embracing the promise of economic freedom that can come with business ownership. As early as high school, she was making jewelry from bits of glass to nurture her entrepreneurial spirit. During her 10,000 Women training two years ago, Wahidi -- determined to follow through on her goal of starting a small enterprise -- developed two separate business plans, one for recycling and the other for food production. "Recycling requires more money, while jam making is a smaller business and does not need as many resources," notes Wahidi, who traveled to the U.S. in late 2010 as part of Project Artemis, a business-skills training program at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona, that aims to help develop the entrepreneurial skills of promising Afghan businesswomen. "Most of the women in Ghazni are unemployed and need their own income. That's why I have started Sama Food Production -- to provide employment for these women and to create a good market in Ghazni and Kabul."
Importing More than Exporting
Sama Food Production, which makes apple, cherry and mango jam and three types of pickles from cucumbers, mixed vegetables and carrots using produce from local farmers, is significant for more than its local economic contributions. Afghan-produced food is a dying commodity, says Mahbouba Seraj, a past 10,000 Women instructor at the American University of Afghanistan. "Afghanistan is on the verge of being totally reliant. In a while, we will not be producing anything if this trend continues because we are buying all of our food from Iran and Pakistan, including our grain, rice, beans and vegetables," says Seraj. "In the season when onions grow in Afghanistan, Pakistan comes and buys them and sells them to us. It's a very strange situation here and extremely necessary to fix."
Agriculture has long been a way of life for a large percentage of Afghan people, and yet the war has transformed the buying and selling of goods. "Afghanistan has enough fruits and vegetables to export to the Arab world and Iran and Pakistan if we need to. But it has become very political," notes Seraj. "We have entered deals with our neighboring countries, Iran and Pakistan, and we are importing a lot more than we are exporting. It has become a huge business with these countries, and they don't want us to become more of a self-sufficient country in terms of products."
While Seraj admits that Afghanistan is in need of robust outside investment to help rebuild food production to a level that will impact the country's economy, she also believes that small businesses are critical to this economic growth. "We can start by doing small food production, and the bigger companies will come," she says.
Wahidi's main priority is to legitimize her jam and pickle-making business beyond a kitchen-based hobby. To do this requires more sophisticated labeling and packaging. Seraj, who specializes in family-owned business strategies, offers suggestions for entrepreneurs like Wahidi who are starting food production on a small scale. "You should look into standardizing your packaging by including the quantity, nutritional information and other specifics on the label," notes Seraj. "Find out exactly what is needed to standardize your product for the world market. Otherwise, you will be prevented from exporting your food and will have to sell only to local markets."
Even more important than the information on the label, adds Seraj, is the quality and purity of the products inside. "Whatever you do, the packaging has to be absolutely clean, especially if you are selling liquid edibles like pickles and jams. The bottles and dishes need to be sanitized," she says. As a company grows, it can invest in machinery for cleaning, "but from the beginning, the workers' sanitation is very important. Their heads must be covered so their hair won't fall, their hands have to be washed with soap and they need gloves."
Bamyan Potato Chips
In general, small food producers need to find a niche, something that distinguishes them from their competitors. For example, in the case of Sama Food Production, Seraj suggests the potential for designing and building a brand that highlights owner and region. "People like to know that this product was made by a woman-owned company -- it makes it more appealing," notes Seraj. "When I buy jams, I always look for those made by Afghan women. A good start to branding is to focus on the area the product comes from. For instance, right now we have Baghlan cheese. It comes from Baghlan, and everyone buys it because they know it will be good. Another example is an investor who is coming to Bamyan, which has the best potatoes in all of Afghanistan. This gentleman is coming all the way from another part of the world and setting up his factory in Bamyan to make potato chips. And they will be delicious because of the amazing potatoes in Bamyan."
Wahidi is already thinking strategically about everything from branding to business expansion. To tackle the paucity of fresh produce around Ghazni in the winter, she is looking to expand production to Jalalabad, a city in eastern Afghanistan that has two seasons for fruits and vegetables. By the end of 2011, she would like to be selling her jams and pickles in four other Afghan provinces and establish cold-storage techniques to keep her fruits and vegetables fresh year-round. Ultimately, her plan is to produce beverages as well. "The main purpose of starting my own business is to become financially self sufficient and regain personal freedom, as well as to support other needy women by providing job opportunities," says Wahidi, who employs 23 people and is looking to train a total of 150 women by the end of 2011. If she has her way, Ghazni province will soon be a region known for its pickles and jams.