The end of the Afghan crisp empire
Dozens of companies in Herat industrial zone close down or lay off hundreds of workers
Special envoy to Herat, AfghanistanMana crisps are famous all over Afghanistan. They can be found in any province of the country and are known for their originality. There is something for everyone: vinegar, pepper, lemon... and even ketchup flavour for the most daring. At the entrance to the factory several workers are loading a trailer. Boxes full of bags of crisps are passed from hand to hand, forming a chain. At first glance, nothing has changed with the return of the Taliban.
"We used to have 400 workers and now we only have 112," says company manager Humayum Mohmand at the outset, making it clear that the veneer of normality is a mere pipe dream. In his office, he is flattering the guests with tea and a plate full of crisps, of course. "Last week we fired a hundred people," he continues. Just like that, all at once and without a second thought, because here in Afghanistan, there are no severance payments. But the businessman justifies himself: "There is no market for our products". Since the Taliban came to power, Afghanistan has fallen into a deep economic crisis and, in these circumstances, the last thing people spend their money on is buying crisps.
Economic engine of the country
Mana is one of the companies that were part of the miracle of Herat, because it really can be considered a miracle that in this north-western city of Afghanistan an industrial park was born out of nothing and became one of the economic engines of the country. The president of the Chamber of Industries and Mines of Herat, Hamidullah Khadem, says that there were 400 factories between 2005 and 2010, the golden age. In fact, at the headquarters of the Chamber of Industries, all the products that were manufactured in the city are displayed in two large showcases: from soft drinks as popular as Super Cola – which was intended to compete with Coca-Cola – to all kinds of biscuits and juices, paints, pipes and medicines.
The economic decline began in 2014, when most of the international troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan, says Khadem. But the final blow was Taliban takeover. "Now there are only 150 to 170 companies left, and, if things don't change, many will close." However, the president of the Chamber of Industries does not blame the Taliban, but the financial blockade that Afghanistan is currently suffering, since the international community has frozen all the country's international reserves.
"It is very difficult to make international transfers, and this makes it impossible to import raw materials," he complains. Added to this is the fact that many people have lost their jobs. "Police, military, women, people who worked for NGOs, for international projects, or in the industrial estate's factories...", he lists. And if people don't have money, they don't spend it either. It's a vicious circle. The production of factories in Herat has been reduced by at least 25% to adapt to the shortage of demand, and those that exported products abroad have also stopped doing so.
At Mana there used to be three shifts. Now there is only one. And their crisps were exported to Turkmenistan, but now all the production stays in Afghanistan. "At the beginning of the year we used to distribute seeds to farmers in Herat to plant potatoes and then we bought the crops. But now we import potatoes from Iran", the company director explains. And this, of course, is now also a disadvantage. The plastic used for packaging also comes from the neighbouring country, and the additives used to give the potatoes their different flavours are imported from the Netherlands.
In the factory the workers work until five in the afternoon. Surprisingly, there are a few women, most of them very young. They are mainly involved in packaging. "So far the Taliban haven't given me any problems for working, but I don't know for how long", 18-year-old Shamsie Aghlaghi shouts. The packaging machine makes so much noise that it is difficult to hear each other inside the compound.
The director of Mana says he had to negotiate with the radicals so that the women could continue working. Now there are 37 women employees. "They accepted, but on a temporary basis," he says. On the other hand, what they did not agree to was for Mana to continue to broadcast television advertisements featuring a woman eating crisps with music in the background. "They said there could be neither music nor women"