By Afghans, for AfghansDelicious potato chips made in Afghanistan
While international troops withdraw, the Taliban are still active and tribal conflict continues in the villages: Afghanistan and its people are still far from peace and security. And yet there are small signs that the situation is improving. While many could only afford to buy the barest necessities during the war years, potato chips made in Afghanistan are now making inroads into the markets. What makes them so special is that the local Mr Kachaloo brand is not only creating jobs; it is also uniting people from hostile tribes. Read More
While international troops withdraw, the Taliban are still active and tribal conflict continues in the villages: Afghanistan and its people are still far from peace and security. And yet there are small signs that the situation is improving. While many could only afford to buy the barest necessities during the war years, potato chips made in Afghanistan are now making inroads into the markets. What makes them so special is that the local Mr Kachaloo brand is not only creating jobs; it is also uniting people from hostile tribes.
Two tons – an impressive total of 2,000 kilograms – of Mr Kachaloo potato chips are sold each month at Afghanistan’s bazars and shops, and the local chip company is struggling to keep up with demand. The small red bags have only been on the market since 2015, but the three flavours available, salted, paprika and lemon, seem to appeal to local taste buds and have become a favourite snack to take on the road.
The fact that Mr Kachaloo got off the ground at all is pretty amazing, given that the market was flooded with products from foreign companies with Pepsico in the lead (yes, Coca Cola’s biggest competitor). Local potato chip producers did not stand a chance against such stiff competition, until Mr Kachaloo came along and successfully challenged the multinational corporation.
The “Mr Kachaloo” brand has been around since 2012. But the business did not really get up and running until Afghan consultant Mahmood Nisar and his mentor, German entrepreneur Helmut Wörner, purchased the company. The initial founders had given up, since the business was not achieving the hoped-for success and there was no new capital to be had. Mahmood, who lives in Germany, began carefully rebuilding the company. He brought a small team together, including his wife and a few consultants, and worked hard to familiarize himself with the market segment. They met with a former head of production from one of Germany’s largest chip makers to learn all about production. And they held a chip tasting in Kabul, purchasing all the kinds and flavours they could find at the bazar and trying them out. In 2014, they moved the factory from an apartment house in a residential neighbourhood of Kabul, to the Kabul Industrial Part Pul-eCharkhi, thus turning it into a proper factory.
Today, more than 15 people work at the factory and their families live off the potato chips business. The brand has become so popular that production can’t keep up with market demand. “We started very simple, but have now learned that we need to scale up production with modern production facilities,” says Mahmood. “We’re looking at relocating and bringing modern machines to Afghanistan that are energy efficient, clean, safe to use, and will sustainably produce high quality chips.”
The company's potato chips are made from Afghan potatoes and consumed by Afghans.
Mahmood came to Germany as a political refugee in 1992. He finished school in his new homeland, attended university, and built a life for himself. Today he works as a consultant and facilitator for German development organisations and the Foreign Office. But he retained close ties to his homeland and always wanted to do something to help the people there – especially those with no voice in society, like women and children, and people from isolated areas and who live in poverty. Now that the official acts of war are over at least, he saw a chance to do his part to help rebuild his country. “I love the region where I was born. You can’t deny your roots, and I am drawn to Afghanistan.”
The chip factory is a perfect way to help. Production doesn’t require a lot of complicated technology, just a few raw materials, most of which – like potatoes and spices – can be grown in Afghanistan. Mahmood’s company produces potato chips in Afghanistan for Afghanistan, made from Afghan potatoes and consumed by Afghans. This makes it quite different from international players like Pepsico who mainly care about maximising profits. By contrast, Mahmood’s goal is to create jobs, train young people, and bring people from warring tribes together. “I don’t see myself as an owner. I don’t work in production myself. The Afghan people who cut the potatoes, cook them, season them, package them and sell them are the real drivers of this venture.”
The factory gives young Afghans a chance at a career, not at all easy to find in Afghanistan even for well-educated young people, and a place they can spread their wings a bit. “The company itself is like a sandbox for these young professionals. They can try things, learn, be innovative, earn their stripes and build confidence. The idea is to create projects that we can hand over to these young educated leaders along with coaching, mentoring and investment.”
Something else that makes Mr Kachaloo special is that it employs people from different ethnic tribes. This is a bold and unusual step in what is still a heavily tribal society and it’s not always easy. But it is working: Men and women from very different and sometimes hostile tribes work side by side in the chip factory.
“I want the workforce in the factory to reflect the diversity of Afghan society. Peace will never come to Afghanistan if we Afghans don’t move past social barriers and discrimination. This applies to every ethnic group who all discriminate against the others in some form. Young Afghans believe in a multicultural society and this is a great place to start.” Management at Mr Kachaloo pays no attention to employees’ backgrounds, which gives the team an opportunity to work together in a diverse, tolerant atmosphere.
“I want the workforce in the factory to reflect the diversity of Afghan society. Peace will never come if we Afghans don’t move past social barriers and discrimination.”
As Mahmood and his team want to expand production and marketing, they will soon be joined by additional young employees. “We are also professionalizing purchasing,” the company’s consultant Holger Heinze explains. “We are working with potato farmers from the region and their unions and telling them what kinds of potatoes are best for chip production.”
Mahmood is not making any money from the company yet. He used his family’s savings to buy the brand and is currently subsidizing the company’s operations with his private income. All revenue is reinvested in further expansion. But profit is not his main objective at the moment anyway: “Since I started working with the people in Afghanistan, I feel it makes me whole – in a sense it also frees me from childhood trauma, from my fear of terror. Now I don’t fear the Taliban anymore.”
“Now I don’t fear the Taliban anymore.”