By Judith Snyderman
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
Aug. 20, 2010 - Step by step, the revival of Afghan industrial production is breathing new life into the country's shattered economy.
One of the first big successes of "Afghan First," a NATO Training Mission Afghanistan program that encourages Afghan business competition, is the reopening of the Kabul Milli boot factory.
During a "DoD Live" bloggers roundtable discussion yesterday, Air Force Col. Larry Avery, director of the training mission's security assistance office, said the manufacturing plant had been closed for years, but the original owner enthusiastically invested his own money to restart the business when coalition forces who procure uniforms and gear for the new Afghan army expressed interest.
Avery recalled that the first boots off the production line did not wear well in field tests.
"They ripped in a couple of places. The soles were coming off the boots, and so then we brought in some of our experts from the states," he said. With help from the Army's Natick laboratories in Massachusetts, new quality control standards were introduced. In addition, Avery said, "we helped them develop the specifications for the boots, and [then] the second set of boots were better." A much-refined manufacturing process now is delivering excellent quality footwear, Avery added.
"I'm wearing a pair right now," he said, "and I've been wearing them for four and a half months, and it's a great boot. It's a very comfortable boot."
At $65 a pair, the boots also are a good deal, Avery said.
"We would probably pay $75 to $100 for a boot like that in the U.S., and then we would have to import it here," he said.
Meanwhile, additional manufacturers now are vying to become second and third sources to supply boots to the Afghan army. That, Avery explained, is proof "Afghan First" is bringing back an Afghan entrepreneurial spirit that was suppressed by the Soviet occupation and by the Taliban regime.
This year, Avery said, "Afghan First" spent $150 million on Afghan-made apparel and gear. He said he expects that figure to reach $500 million next year. Avery described some of the initiatives under way to incubate new businesses.
"We had the first-ever Afghan government-led vendor fair recently to keep companies informed on how they can apply for contracts," he said. That effort included seminars on acquisition procedures that guide the government's purchase of goods and services.
Another program set aside contract funds for women-owned businesses to supply items such as backpacks, T-shirts, underwear and socks. After running a competition for those contracts, Avery said, "we debriefed the companies that did not win and are in the process right now of awarding six contracts valued at $55 million."
Avery also cited a burgeoning container industry in which businesses are converting shipping containers into offices and even living quarters.
In addition to ongoing security challenges, Avery said, fledgling Afghan businesses face another big challenge: poverty puts the cost of high quality goods out of reach for most civilians. Ironically, he said, it's possible that the boot manufacturer in Afghanistan's capital of Kabul may have more success growing its market beyond the army by exporting its footwear rather than by selling it to local civilians.