U.S. Military Experiments With Empowering Afghan Businesswomen

January 29, 2010

KABUL — Standing at the front of a narrow trailer with cardboard-covered windows that serves as a conference room at the Camp Eggers military base, Capt. Edgard Flores of the U.S. Air Force held up a sample of a men’s brown T-shirt and put a ruler to it.

“It’s very simple,” he said, speaking slowly in American English that his translator quickly rendered into Dari for the Afghan businesswomen seated around a long wooden table. “You just measure it across. If it doesn’t measure 18 inches, it is wrong.”

The women nodded and took notes as Captain Flores moved on to the next topic in a four-hour tutorial in how to produce goods to specification for the U.S. military.

The session, held in mid-November, was part of an initiative to use military purchasing power to accomplish two goals: strengthening the capacity of businesses owned by Afghan women and creating local supply chains to support Afghan security forces, which are poised to grow sharply by the end of the year under President Barack Obama’s strategy for the country.

The effort, started last year by the Pentagon’s Kabul Regional Contracting Center, sets aside contracts totaling $365 million over five years to produce clothing and equipment for the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army. The international community pledged in 2001 to rebuild the country’s security and armed forces; since then, the United States has committed $26 billion to train and equip the A.N.A. and A.N.P., accounting for roughly 55 percent of total U.S. reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan to date.

In the view of military contracting officials leading the set-aside project, supporting female entrepreneurs and bolstering Afghanistan’s economy are part of countering an increasingly emboldened insurgency. “Fifty percent of the country are women,” said Air Force Maj. Chuck Seidel, a local procurement chief with a budget of roughly $1 billion to purchase local supplies, including uniforms, boots and now T-shirts and other basics, for Afghan forces.

“If we are going to make a difference,” he continued, “we have got to create jobs, we have to give hope. How better to do that?”

Female entrepreneurs seem to agree. Overwhelming interest in the training session hosted by Major Seidel, Captain Flores and their colleague Patricia Babida, a veteran Air Force contracting officer, led the procurement team to schedule a second, equally crowded Saturday seminar a week after the first.

More than 60 business people, mostly women, from 35 Afghan companies turned out for the two Camp Eggers tutorials. Many of the Afghan women in attendance had never before set foot on a military base.

And they almost did not have the chance this time. The set-aside was nearly scrapped last August when female-owned companies that answered the initial solicitation for the Afghan army and police supplies submitted incomplete and mistake-ridden proposals. Product samples, like the brown shirt Captain Flores displayed, came in the wrong color, the wrong size and the wrong fabric — and sometimes all three.

Ms. Babida and her colleagues quickly realized that the businesswomen did not understand what the Americans were seeking and had never before been asked to produce to such exacting specifications.

Instead of giving up, however, Ms. Babida, an entrepreneur herself who believed strongly in the effort, thought the businesswomen might feel less intimidated if they could ask another woman all of their proposal-related questions. She and her contracting colleagues agreed to try once more, this time holding information sessions to walk the women through the arcane details of the obscure “request for proposal” submission process with painstaking precision.

“We thought rather than just abandon this, let’s bring them in so people can understand and try again,” Ms. Babida said. “We have a lot of female-owned companies that want the opportunity and you know they have the capability, they just don’t understand the language barrier” and the regulations.

Yet despite great enthusiasm both from the U.S. military contracting experts and the entrepreneurs at the session, the initial question concerning the program’s viability remains: Will companies owned by Afghan women have the capacity to meet the requirements of so large a contract for so demanding a customer?

Awards for the Afghan army and police clothing and gear are expected to total $35 million in the first year alone, with a $300,000 minimum for each company that submits a winning contract. Though both their numbers and their successes are growing, to date few female Afghan entrepreneurs have produced at such volumes or won such big contracts.

Businesses competing for the contract, whether as a single company or a joint venture, will have to assemble a proposal to produce one of two groups of items, either undershirts and linens or rain gear and sleeping bags. Both are complicated propositions given that large-scale, in-country manufacturing experience remains the exception rather than the rule among Afghan entrepreneurs.

Very few women own factories here. And as the first attempt at the proposal process showed, most who make textiles sew at home or in small workshops to produce one-of-a-kind, handmade goods. Quality control of the kind to which the U.S. military is accustomed is nearly nonexistent.

Those working with the businesswomen, however, warn against underestimating either the capacity or the potential of the entrepreneurs. They note that a number of male-owned Afghan companies have already won contracts to provide the army and the force with boots and uniforms under a local procurement program started several years back.

“The Afghan companies the military is working with are getting better all the time; there is no reason to believe that won’t happen with women-owned businesses,” said Michael Capstick, Afghanistan country director for the nongovernmental organization Peace Dividend Trust, which helps Afghan entrepreneurs increase their skills and capacity. “For some saying, ‘Those women-owned businesses can’t do it,’ well, who says?”

For their part, the female small-business owners vying for the award appear inspired, not intimidated, by the size of the contract. They say they are grateful for the opportunity and confident they can compete, both with one another and with the bevy of larger companies that are expected to pursue the business.

“There are big companies which have the advantage, but I am not losing my hope,” said Humira Aimaq, a widow and mother who registered her own handicrafts and tailoring company four years ago after decades of sewing for neighborhood women. “Most women in Afghanistan are jobless; if I can win this contract, I can create income and work for them.”

Ms. Aimaq’s business, which outfits several members of Parliament, used to sell scarves and clothing to foreigners before security fears in the wake of the election last summer and the October attack on the United Nations guest house drove many of her customers from Kabul’s streets. Now her company is struggling alongside many other businesses owned by Afghan women that sell to the international market.

“In Afghanistan these days, everyone is complaining that they don’t have work, there are no jobs,” she said. “Security is the main challenge facing all business people in Afghanistan.”

Eager for the military business when she first heard about the contracting opportunity early this summer, Ms. Aimaq joined a consortium of four female entrepreneurs that sent in one of the problem bids to Major Seidel’s contracting team. She said she and the other businesswomen understood their mistakes after having attended the Camp Eggers training and were ready to try again.

“We have lots of experience; we are able to produce whatever they want,” she said. “Military items are much easier to produce than handicrafts.”

Senior military contracting officials are studying the effort to see whether it can serve as a model.

“This is the avenue for us to do positive things with our money,” Major Seidel said. “We are in a war against an insurgency,” he continued. “You have American and NATO forces saying, ‘We care about your local economy and we are willing to invest in it.”’

“The goal here,” he said, “is that my desk can be closed down once the training and equipping is complete for A.N.A. and A.N.P. and there is the local business ecosystem to sustain them. Then I will go home to my family.”