Incomes, production increase through USAID’s Afghanistan Workforce Development Program

Every day as the sun rises in Afghanistan’s Balkh province, hundreds of families are waking early to start their morning tasks.

In small compounds where families live, women sit on low stools, milking cows. The fresh milk is transferred from its tin pail into a larger container and passed off to sons and daughters to carry by hand to a local cooperative.

It is tested, measured and poured into large metal containers. From there, it’s transported to the nearby Balkh Dairy processing plant to be turned into products yogurt, cheese and doogh, a traditional Afghan drink made with milk, cucumber and mint.

For the hundreds of families who are members of Balkh Dairy’s cooperatives, this daily routine is a crucial source of income. And Qeyamudin Qeyam, Chairman of the Balkh Livestock and Dairy Union and the Afghanistan Dairy Producers Association, says business is better than ever, for both the processing plant and the farmers.

“Our farmers’ cattle that were producing four to five liters of milk early on are now producing 20 liters,” he says. “Today, (the cooperative) process 7,000 liters of milk daily, and the financial stability of the people is much better compared to in the past.”

Dairy farmers collect milk.
Dairy farmers collect milk to bring to collectives in Mazar e-Sharif. Photos by Jim Huylebroek.

Qeyam attributes this upward trend in part to the support of the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program – a six-year program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International.

In a country with high levels of poverty and unemployment, the program is partnering with local private sector entities, consultancy firms and semi-public entities, providing training to raise incomes and help workers find new and better jobs across industries, including marketing, manufacturing, business administration and dairy production.

The program has worked with dairies like Balkh to improve their business operations, market their goods and manage production. Qeyam says in Balkh, this series of trainings and professional development has had an impact on every aspect of the company.

“The milk production increased, incomes increased and our distribution increased,” he says. “It was very beneficial for our organization.”

New skills for growing businesses

Balkh Dairy staff prepare milk for transport.
Balkh Dairy staff prepare milk for transport.

The program worked with a local nongovernmental organization called the Paiwand-Emroz Social and Cultural Organization to train around 20 professionals from Balkh in how to better manage production and market their product to consumers and shops. AWDP also conducted consumer studies, surveying buyers in the area on their satisfaction with Balkh products.

Qeyam says this training and information quickly helped the dairy get its product on the shelves of new stores, expand its offerings, and increase milk production by about 500 liters a day.

“At the start of the project, we had 250 stores. After going through the training, we were able to add another 50 stores in Balkh province,” he says. “Together, they expanded the scope of our market and increased our production. These are important advances. Because of the trainings, we added two new products and learned how to vacuum pack cheese.”

Dairy products have traditionally been viewed as a luxury in Afghanistan and not widely available, as most producers had no reliable means of keeping milk from spoiling quickly.

But Qeyam says with help from marketing efforts and technology that allows for pasteurization and homogenization, consumers are growing a taste for dairy. And as the industry develops, it is opening new economic opportunities for professionals and farmers alike.

“If we pay more attention to this industry, it will become self-sufficient and can be a great way for farmers to support their children and send them to school, and have a source of income,” he says.

Kabul-based dairy finds niche, boosts its production

On the outskirts of Kabul, a group of young investors with limited business experience opened Tala Dairy in 2015.

CEO Nawab Sarabi studied agriculture at the university and knew the consumer market around the capital had tremendous potential for yogurt and other dairy products. Indeed, imports from places like Iran were in retail outlets in Kabul when a local product could be sold in their place.

In 2017, Sarabi learned of production, financial and marketing classes organized through AWDP. To grow Tala Dairy, he needed professional help and enrolled key staff in the courses.

It paid off. Through a mixture of AWDP’s trainings and other efforts by Sarabi, Tala Dairy has grown its daily processing from 100 liters of milk in 2015 to 800 liters in 2017. It has more than doubled its number of employees. Today, more than 300 families provide raw milk to Tala’s plant, which is boosting household income in marginalized neighborhoods.

“If we pay more attention to this industry, it will become self-sufficient and can be a great way for farmers to support their children” Qeyamudin Qeyam, Chairman, Balkh Livestock and Dairy Union and Afghanistan Dairy Producers Association.

Sarabi says AWDP’s trainings taught him how to write a proper proposal, a skill he used to solicit and obtain funds for new machinery to increase production.

The company also has a better handle on finances.

“Another training that we took part in last year was in finance,” he says. “When our finance head left the company for another job, it delayed our entire finance system. We tried to train ourselves, but the best training, with more accuracy and discipline, was through AWDP.”

Like Balkh Dairy in the north, Tala Dairy was able to expand its production and hire three marketing consultants to boost distribution.

“Our level of production has increased by 200 kilograms (nearly 450 pounds) of product,” Sarabi says. “Until last year, our maximum level of production was 500 kilograms. This made us shift our traditional marketing system to a more professional and technical one.”

For Sarabi, his company does much more than produce dairy products. In conflict-ridden Afghanistan, giving dairy farmers a stable income and more opportunity can help build their resiliency and promote peacebuilding.

“A very important aspect of our business is when you buy milk from households in local areas, it directly impacts peace,” he says, noting that some farmers live in areas under Taliban control. “If there is higher incomes and more jobs, it will obviously help in the peace process.”

With reporting by Aziz Gulbahari, Michael J. Zamba and Saber Daneshjoo from Mazar e-Sharif and Kabul, Afghanistan.