Building Afghanistan

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From Mines to Markets

Helmand is still one of the most difficult operating environments in Afghanistan. Despite the security challenges, local entrepreneurs in the country’s largest province display a remarkable sense of resilience, helped by the PDM-Helmand project, which is accredited with having facilitated almost $150 million in contracts awarded to Helmandi companies by international buyers, thereby creating thousands of local jobs. Now, meet entrepreneurs who are building the Helmandi marketplace!

These stories were written by Nooruddin Bakhshi. He is an Afghan journalist who has worked for many years with The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Times. He has also worked on several NGO communication projects. He is based in Kabul.

In Helmand Province, mud-caked boulders are yanked up from the earth, revealing huge slabs of onyx. These slabs are then loaded onto trucks and driven for three days across the sandy divides of the region before reaching the Helmand Stone and Furniture Joint Company in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. Each month, a team of 30 trucks shuttles back and forth between the mines and Lashkar Gah transporting more than 200 tonnes of onyx over 360 km. At the factory, smaller stones are separated and cut into thin slices while bigger stones are sawn into either large panels, or thicker stumps.

The company’s factory is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Lashkar Gah, having begun
operations under the reign of King Zahir Shah in the early 1970s, and remains one of the provinces largest employers, with 80 employees working in the mines alone.

At the factory, the stone is moved into an airy workshop where a dozen men work busily with lathes, using mechanical polishers or sometimes their bare hands to finesse the onyx. Currently, the Helmand stone and Furniture Joint Company employs a total of 230 individuals. Fifty year old Sakhad, pictured below, has worked at the factory for 35 years, and is the in-house master of craft.

There are many challenges for businesses operating in Helmand province, explains Ali Ahmed Feroz, the factory manager. One of the main impediments to work is the lack of regular electricity; the factory gets three hours of city power a day, then it must rely on generators, which are much more expensive. He also cites the spectre of corruption where some government officials solicit bribes in exchange for licenses and certification as a challenge to doing business. But he maintains that the government remains supportive. Finally, there is the sheer scope of the logistics of transporting the onyx from the mines to the factory. “It’s across sand, the whole way,” explains Mr. Feroz. “But security there is good.” Despite these challenges, the factory produces a wide range of products including plates, bowls, ashtrays, name plates and even miniature mosques.

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