- Posted on 23 April 2013
- by Marla Gitterman
When Bpeace was ready to enter Afghanistan in 2004, we needed money. Our friends and partners at that time – Women for Afghan Women – pointed us to a grant opportunity at the U.S. State Department.
When Bpeace was ready to enter Afghanistan in 2004, we needed money. Our friends and partners at that time – Women for Afghan Women – pointed us to a grant opportunity at the U.S. State Department.
We needed more than a map to find Rwanda and Afghanistan in our early days. UN Women was Bpeace’s Lewis & Clark and Christopher Columbus. We are proud to present UN Women with the Bpeace Pioneer Gamechanger Award.
We wanted something very special to present to our Bpeace Pioneer Gamechangers at our Gala celebrating Bpeace’s 10th Anniversary. Sculptor Anne Kellett rose to the challenge.
Afghanistan is everywhere you look – and not in the way you would expect. From Carnegie Hall and The Daily Show to the Oscars and the Grammy’s, Afghan artists and opinion-leaders are suddenly high profile. They are showcasing the best of their country through arts, culture and sports. The Afghans and Afghan Americans amongst the Bpeace membership offer their insights on why they believe their country is on a roll.
[caption id="attachment_3170" align="alignnone" width="540"] Panelists discuss Bpeace’s work in El Salvador at last week’s Young Professionals event in NYC. From left: Marvin Fuentes, Mary Stycos, and Marla Gitterman, with Claudia Barriere on screen from El Salvador. [/caption]
“Salvadorans need permanent jobs and I want to create them,” says business owner Claudia Barriere to an audience at Sutherland law firm in New York City. Claudia believes with secure employment people can begin to develop their lives and reduce gang violence in El Salvador.
Speaking from El Salvador via BlueJeans video conferencing, Claudia was one of three panelists at this year’s first event hosted by Bpeace's Young Professionals. Joining her on the panel were Marla Gitterman, Bpeace's Chief Program Officer; Marvin Fuentes, Bloomberg’s Business Development Manager; and Mary Stycos, a restaurant management expert. Marvin is a native Salvadoran and offered his business insight into potential solutions to stimulate the country’s economic growth. Mary, who recently traveled to El Salvador as a Bpeace traveling mentor, discussed the various challenges facing small and medium-sized businesses in the country.
The cost of violence to lives and business
As the managing director of La Canasta -- a family run food processing business in Santa Tecla – Claudia works despite facing death threats and extortion. In fact, one of her employees was recently shot and killed while delivering products to a customer. Claudia has become used to these dangers. She, along with other business owners, are asked to pay “rent” to gangs in order to continue to operate their businesses.
Marvin Fuentes estimates that the costs incurred by insecurity account for approximately 15% of a company's operating expenses and, nationwide, the country spends almost 10% of its GDP on security. During her travels to the country, Mary observed that Salvadorans fear for their safety everyday and this negatively impacts their professional and personal lives.
Hope and inspiration
But, for what seems like a bleak situation, the message of the evening was hopeful. The Salvadoran small business owners that Bpeace assists serve as role models, pursuing innovation and pushing economic development. Marvin noted that Bpeace’s work educating and supporting entrepreneurs is critical in a difficult economic and political situation.
Claudia choked up as she describes the positive impact Bpeace has had upon the growth of her business and the quality of her life. She explained, “Bpeace has been a great inspiration. I hope to help other women as they have helped me.”
Fahima Ahad, head of Bpeace’s Young Professionals Leadership Council, commented that, “The event was a success. The goal was to re-energize Bpeace’s Young Professional group, educate members and non-members about the situation in El Salvador, and demonstrate the need for Bpeace’s work in the country.”
Bpeace has been assisting entrepreneurs in El Salvador since 2011. Roughly 60% of the SMEs Bpeace works with in El Salvador are women owned or led businesses. You can follow La Canasta on Facebook.
It's been eight months since Abdul Rashid Reshad travelled to the U.S. on the Bpeace Apprentice Road Trip. Since returning home to Afghanistan, he has transformed his for-profit vocational school and it was recently accredited by the Afghan government as a University. He has hired 25 people, most of them new faculty.
Reshad is the founder and owner of Reshad Educational and Higher Educational Institutes in northern Afghanistan. As one of Bpeace's most successful Fast Runner entrepreneurs, we asked him for the secrets to his success.
A: “I have been successful through continuing to improve my own knowledge and my team’s managerial capacity. I joined social and cultural groups that allow me to network locally. Now, the people in my city support me. Most importantly, I am honest and hardworking.”
Q: What distinguishes your University from other programs in Afghanistan? What makes the Reshad School special?
A: “My University is different from others in my city. We have a democratic atmosphere and we provide entertainment and extra-curricular opportunities for the students. We also conduct trainings for the entire staff. This is unique to our school”
Q: It took you many months to receive your University License. What challenged did you face throughout the process?
A: “There are many procedures that needed to be passed. I had to get special documents for all the teachers. We had a shortage of financing. It was also the first time I was working with Ministry of Higher Education. All of the roles and procedures were new to me.”
A: “I dream of being an international educator. I believe in building my country through education. Sometimes, I was upset and frustrated but my vision allowed me to struggle through the challenges. I contacted other private universities and sought guidance and support. Learning from my colleagues was a great help. Afghanistan is suffering because of our lack of education and that always continues to motivate me."
Q: How many women attend your educational institute? What are you doing to encourage women to attend your school?
A: "Currently we have 28 women (13%) enrolled on our higher education Institutes, 12 of them attend for free through our scholarship programs. Because of unique economic challenges Afghan women face, they represent a low percentage of students in my Institutes. To encourage women to attend, I decrease the fees for women; provide scholarships; and in the future will provide them post-graduation with career services to help them find employment."
Q: When you look at the future, what is the next big goal for your business?
A: “My first goal is to strengthen the quality and quantity of my Institutes. I want to establish more branches in other provinces in Afghanistan and create more fields of study. I am interested in creating partnerships with international universities. I want to grow my school internationally."
Q: What advice do you have for other business owners in Afghanistan?
A: “All business owners must have a strategic plan. It is very important to keep learning more about your industry and general business skills. Never stop being creative."
Q: What do you want to tell people in the United States about growing your business?
A: “I am pleased to learn skills and different achievements from Bpeace and the U.S. State Department. I am grateful for being invited to the United States to learn. It has really helped me promote my business. I am 100% sure I am doing right thing in the right time for my country."
A: “Afghanistan still needs support. We have achieved a lot since 2002: democracy, private business sectors (especially in education), a human rights delegation, a growing media, and freedom of speech. Every day Afghan businesses are growing. We still have new resources to grow our businesses but Afghans need international partners to work and share. We still need industry expertise and experience to support our efforts and exchange mutual business benefits.”
You can contact Reshad directly at email@example.com or +93 799 154 137
Claudia B.M. – Santa Tecla, Food Processing. 80 employees.
Claudia is at the helm of a family-owned business that produces packaged spices and ethnic/fruit drink powders.
Bpeace volunteers and Traveling Mentors have helped Claudia restructure bank loans, develop new products, improve her packaging, and introduced her to U.S. importers.
Claudia is working with her brother to produce high-end children's clothes for export to the U.S. market.
Bpeace is counseling Claudia on expanding and improving her production capacity and developing a strategic growth plan. Bpeace traveling mentors visited Claudia in March 2012 to assist her with her production issues.
Claudia A. – San Salvador, Call Center. 118 employees.
Claudia is the owner of a call center and collection agency.
Claudia traveled to the U.S. with Bpeace in September 2012 to visit call centers and learn about implementing industry best practices and strengthening human resource management.
Claudia W. – San Salvador, Furniture Production. 11 employees.
Claudia and her husband, Harry, are the principals of one of the first Salvadoran design firms to establish a presence outside of Central America.
Bpeace is counseling Claudia and Harry on strengthening her firm’s marketing practices and improving carpentry production. Bpeace has recently coordinated meetings for Claudia at U.S. design firms.
Luis Enrique – Santa Tecla, Food Processing. 64 employees.
Luis is producing prepared and refrigerated products such as salads and sauces at his family-owned business.
Luis is working with his Bpeace consulting team to introduce an ethnic Salvadoran candy line, expand his production capacity and implement customer research activities such as focus groups.
Victor – San Salvador, Mold Manufacturing. 21 employees.
Victor is the owner of a co-op that produces plastic injection molds.
Bpeace is helping Victor improve several operational areas such as production quality and technical knowledge, customer service, human resources, and management leadership. A Bpeace member visited Victor in February 2012 to train his staff on mold-making.
Bpeace is assisting Alfredo with bakery production, restaurant operations, and family succession. Two Bpeace experts visited Alfredo in September 2012 to assist him in implementing restaurant best practices.
Bpeace is assisting Herbert with increasing his production capacity and improving his sales and marketing activities. In May 2012, Bpeace members visited Herbert to counsel him on production and marketing issues.
Alcides – San Salvador, Food Production. 32 employees.
Alcides is an ice cream manufacturer that sells to small shops in low income neighborhoods through a fleet of ice cream vans—the driver is the distributor, salesperson, and payment collector.
Bpeace is counseling Alcides on improving his ice cream formulations, decreasing his costs, strengthening his brand identity, and developing a business plan. A Bpeace Travelling Mentor spent time at Alcides' business in September and showed him new production techniques for cost-saving.
I had planned to spend two months in country, scouting for the start-ups to feature and putting together a pitch tape for producers. Bamiyan was my first scouting trip. I chose it because of the fascinating tourism development initiatives taking place, including the Afghan Ski Challenge and the country’s first national park; because of its reputation as one of the most secure provinces in Afghanistan; and (to be perfectly honest) because it is home to the Hazara people, for whom I am regularly mistaken.
I had no idea what I would find in Bamiyan, and at first glance at least, I did not find start-ups. At least none that fit into my pre-conceived notions, which were heavily influenced by the tech start-up model of Silicon Valley.
According to Paul Graham, one of the most revered thought leaders in tech-start-up-landia, start-ups are different from small businesses in their focus on a scalable product. Product-based – as opposed to service-based – is key because it means the potential to scale, and scaling is key because the very term “start-up” implies exponential growth.
In the United States, meanwhile, initiatives like Start-Up America promote the idea that entrepreneurship is the key to economic development and job creation, especially in a down economy.
But in Bamiyan, neither of those models seem to hold.
The local economy is still largely agrarian, with endless potato fields producing the best tubers in all of Afghanistan. NGOs and “civil society” play a huge role in the local social and economic fabric. Project funds and implementation pump millions into the local economy, providing not only jobs, but also careers for educated Bamiyanis to aspire to.
Indeed, international organizations and the NGOs that they support seem to serve as the backbone of Bamiyan. The Agha Khan Foundation, widely perceived as one of the most effective development organizations in Afghanistan today, is behind many of the economic development initiatives in Bamiyan, including eco-tourism, infrastructure projects, and small business support. Meanwhile, the development unit of UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan) focuses on basic capacity building projects for local NGOs in several key sectors.
The pervasiveness of NGOs is reflected in the work of the Bamiyan Department of the Economy. Despite its name, it does not focus on general economic issues, but rather on NGO coordination. “For private sector,” said one official I spoke to, “talk to the Chamber of Commerce.” Unfortunately, we were unable to coordinate a time to meet. (“Not surprising,” one international organization’s staff member said, “They are never in their offices.”)
Despite my difficulty in finding start-ups – which were probably too narrowly defined to begin with – I had no difficulty finding entrepreneurialism in Bamiyan. In fact, the province was teeming with entrepreneurs.
The official at the Department of the Economy, a twenty-something with the confident carriage of a man much older, was one example. He had studied economics at university and became a civil servant out of a desire to serve. But such a job came at a price – a much lower pay than an NGO or private sector job – and so he worked on numerous side projects as well. He listed “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” as his favorite book, taught web design and programming in his spare time, and dreamed of the day that he could start his own business.
Then there was the UN staff member, who had come in to work on his day off to help me find start-ups. “The problem with entrepreneurship in Bamiyan,” he said, “is a lack of expertise,” and he told me his story to illustrate the point.
He had once bought an egg incubation machine, hoping to fill a need in Bamiyan for fresh poultry and eggs. But he could not find anyone in the province that knew how to operate the machine optimally, nor could he find the knowledge in Kabul. Eventually, he traveled to Islamabad, where he met with men in the poultry business who convinced him his business idea was much more difficult to implement than simply buying the equipment. They tried to persuade him to import baby chicks from Pakistan instead, “but imagine trying to transport live animals – baby chickens – from Pakistan to Bamiyan,” he laughed.
And then there were the aspiring Bpeace Fast Runners, all of whom I had met without knowing that they had applied to the program. I met three – two of whom worked in media and one in tourism. All of them impressed me enormously in different ways. (They will be traveling to the U.S. in April 2013 through Bpeace's apprenticeship program supported by the U.S. Department of State.)
In fact, my host for the week was Bpeace Fast Runner Gul Hussein. Gul runs a bed-and-breakfast in Bamiyan (perhaps the only one in country), a national travel agency, and is the go-to travel and logistics coordinator for the international community in Bamiyan. He was one of the key organizers of the Afghan Ski Challenge; has everyone’s number from the governor to the local radio personalities in his phone; and, from everything that I saw, is the most successful entrepreneur in the province. Like many of the other entrepreneurs that I met, Gul’s business was entirely self-taught and to continue to grow, he needs exposure to the global standards of the hospitality industry.
While I didn’t find the “start-ups” that I was originally looking for, I most certainly did find entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. They were different, however, and distinctly Afghan. They are side entrepreneurs and serial entrepreneurs, juggling full-time jobs with small enterprises they are patiently nurturing until the right timing. Though growth and scale are important to them, as they are anywhere, these entrepreneurs have a more long-term outlook than the exit-strategy-obsessed start-ups of New York and San Francisco. And they understand – much better than American founders – the competitive advantage of community and personal networks.
But the strongest business network in Afghanistan may actually be the one that stretches beyond its borders. Especially with the uncertainty of 2014, which one interviewee wryly described as “the end of days,” Afghanistan’s entrepreneurs need continued capital and, even more importantly, continued mentorship.
Ana Rosa Selva, Bpeace's Country Director in El Salvador really knows how to roll out the welcome mat when Bpeace members arrive. First stop was a restaurant on the side of a volcano for traditional Pupusas--the Salvadoran version of the tortilla stuffed with cheese, beans or meat with a delightful spicy slaw on top. They say if you love the food, you’ll love the country.
The next morning it was off to mother and daughter owned catering company Delibanquetes to bring together our Fast Runners for their very first group meeting. It felt like a historic moment as they gathered in the room. Would they connect and collaborate? Toni broke the ice and as the introductions started we were off and “running.”
Many of the Fast Runners spoke of humble beginnings and compared where they came from to where they are today. Each thanked Bpeace for help and support. The Bpeace Traveling Mentor program has clearly been a huge success, providing industry specific training for these entrepreneurs. One Fast Runner spoke of the economic crisis and said “God solved their problems at the right time and one of the ways was Bpeace.”
A discussion over how we draw a straight line between jobs and less violence in El Salvador gave us a clear understanding of how Fast Runners view our mission here and what it means to them. They get us...it was a very satisfying and enlightening group conversation. Just like our groups of Fast Runners in Afghanistan and Rwanda, they were soon supporting each other and setting appointments to explore business collaborations. Delibanquetes offered the space for future monthly meetings.
The rest of our time in El Salvador was spent doing in-person company visits. Some highlights:
Helados Cremosa showed us how popsicles are made and we sampled 10 new gourmet popsicles developed by 3rd generation popsicle genius, Marta. This new line of 30 flavors will be released soon and have a yummy creamy texture. Strawberry, mango, pistachio, chocolate, shall I go on? I’d stock my entire freezer with them!
At Los Trillizos Bakery (named after the owners three triplets), Samuel and Flor have only just started their cookie business in June and are so short on space that a third floor was being added the day we were there. On top of that they had to make 24,000 cookies that night for a last minute order. One of the triplets who is only 12 years old has made up her own signature cookie and design. The entire family is involved in the business and that is typical of many of our Fast Runners.
At Web Informática, serial entrepreneur Roberto and team wowed us with his innovative technology products. Roberto was recently interviewed on CNN about his innovative security company, Alertus.
At SV Soft we met with the operations manager Carlos and the owner's daughter, Graciela, to discuss ways they can break into the U.S. market. (Notice that many of the Fast Runners have daughters who are the next generation?)
We met with Sandra at her catering company, Delibanquetes, where she talked about how she handles events for 1,500 people and soon her husband will leave his job to join her so they can grow this already successful business.
Toni and I split up on Tuesday afternoon and she visited Inverprint, a printing company and Serpaca, a paper recycler. I visited Accopimold, a plastic mold manufacturer located in an business complex surrounded by poverty and gangs.
We’ve had impressive results in El Salvador. 199 Salvadorans have new jobs thanks to Fast Runner growth. These 199 bring income to 672 family members. The average job growth in a year has been 20%.
As Toni says, the sun always sets in El Salvador, so while we worked hard, I got good sleep, enjoyed warm breezes and probably gained a few pounds. It was a good trip.
Salvadorans are the nicest people: I was convinced of it after spending a week in El Salvador working with the Carymar family. Everyone I met was amazingly hospitable, helpful and friendly.
I visited Carymar, a staple neighborhood pupusería, restaurant, and bakery that has been in business for over 30 years. Carymar has two locations, one in the center of San Salvador and one in the neighboring town of Santa Tecla. The owners, Don Mario, Alfredo, and Elizabeth, have their work cut out for them, catering to both a quick business lunch clientele and a casual family crowd. Unfortunately, business has slowed recently, and Bpeace is investigating ways to give business a boost. Visiting in person gave me the insight I needed to target Carymar’s strengths and weaknesses, not to mention I finally met the people I’d been virtually working with for almost a year!
I identified three areas for Carymar to focus on to increase their sales: getting current customers to visit more frequently, getting those customers to spend more money during their visits, and attracting new customers. Given that 75% of restaurant sales come from regular clients, we started with the first two areas.
After spending time scoping out Carymar’s competitors, it was clear Carymar has a superior product at a similar price point. To get customers to come in more frequently, and get them to spend more money, it is crucial for Carymar to highlight their strengths. They have a GREAT product; they make everything from scratch from high quality ingredients. They even have a mill to make the rice and corn flour for their pupusas! They have an extensive menu, a highly trafficked location, and an accessible concept that appeals to different demographics. Above all, they have an extremely knowledgeable, loyal, and friendly staff. Carymar has to exploit this!
I led staff trainings, one with waiters and one with supervisors. The employees are enthusiastic, motivated, and invested; they all have great energy and are full of ideas and suggestions on how to make Carymar better. Their input, coupled with the results of a recent customer survey, led to ideas for short- and long-term goals that I presented to Don Mario, Alfredo, and Elizabeth at the end of my visit.
Carymar is ready to start incorporating these ideas
They will implement economical food combinations to encourage customers to buy more at a lower price. They will revamp their menu and signage, make the inside of their main restaurant more welcoming, and increase their visibility from the road. I also suggested they implement a frequent customer card.
Small details are essential in making the guests’ experience special. Waiters and supervisors are going to personalize their service, consistently up sell products and inform all guests about the “Carymar difference.” For kids, Carymar will create a menu with fun facts about how the pupusas are made and offer raffles.
Carymar has committed to start a delivery program, something that will help them reach a high-end demographic. They are going to promote their San Salvador location for private events, and create a specific menu for catering. And, given its importance, especially in the food world, Carymar is going to jumpstart an online marketing campaign, creating a Facebook page and website, possibly with the help of an intern from a local business school.
There is a lot of work to be done, but Carymar is up to the job. My visit encouraged them to focus and organize their priorities which will allow them to jumpstart innovations. I am excited to see what they can accomplish in the coming months!
Alcides and his family warmly welcomed me to El Salvador and into their business--Helados Cremosa, an ice cream manufacturing company. Unfortunately, Salvadoran customs did not share their enthusiasm.
I was traveling with nearly 100 samples of flavors, flavor keys, stabilizer ingredients, sauces and particles. I was intending to use them to help Alcides create new formulas. Having cleared passport control, I could see the Salvadoran sun seeping through the airport exit. But before I could make it out the door, customs stopped me, pulled my suitcase apart, and refused to let me go with all the samples. We tried relentlessly to retrieve them over the next few days but it soon became futile.
The absence was a blessing in disguise; there were so many other tasks to accomplish.
Alcides asked me to help reduce ingredient costs while improving quality. Though it may sound contradictory, this is exactly what we accomplished.
Reducing costs creates opportunities
I am a volunteer dispatched by Bpeace to assist Alcides with his formulations. We went through each of his formulas and by juggling ingredients and raw materials, were able to dramatically improve Alcides’ costs for one of his product lines. This will create room for him to re-think his strategy.
We worked on how to slow down popsicle melting time, essential in the Salvadoran heat. I gave Alcides formula sheets for products similar to what he is already making, with suggestions on how to alter them to reduce melting. When I left, Marta, Alcides’ daughter and the production manager, was preparing samples of every formula to conduct a “hot room test” with the re-formulated popsicles.
To improve manual mold filling, I suggested ways to increase overrun and improve the texture. I introduced Alcides to my trusted Chinese equipment manufacturer and Alcides is now waiting on a price quote for several machines, which will improve the mix quality of Alicides’ products.
I advised Alcides to make chocolate coating himself instead of purchasing it which will result in significant cost savings. He will also be supporting local vendors by purchasing all ingredients locally.
There is so much more to be done! Still trapped in customs are ingredients that can generate huge cost reductions for most of the flavors Helados Cremosa purchases. Ice cream sauces, also in customs, can be used to increase the range of center-filled ice cream novelties. With some new equipment, Helados Cremosa will be able to make these sauces in their own factory.
I am really pleased with all the results we achieved in such a short time and plan to continue working with Alcides from a distance.
The warmth of the hospitality I found in San Salvador will never be forgotten. I am truly grateful for all of the experiences and I know I will be looking for an opportunity to visit again.