Jun 13, 2012

Local Afghan businesses celebrate expansions

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Local Afghan businessmen and Bill Swaney, the U.S. Department of State’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan’s Parwan Province, cut the ribbon at a water pumping station in Charikar, June 11. With U.S. assistance, the pump’s reservoir was connected to the city’s electrical grid and now brings water to about 900 local homes. Local Afghan businessmen and Bill Swaney, the U.S. Department of State’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan’s Parwan Province, cut the ribbon at a water pumping station in Charikar, June 11. With U.S. assistance, the pump’s reservoir was connected to the city’s electrical grid and now brings water to about 900 local homes. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Roland Hale, RC-East Public Affairs

PARWAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan - Two local businesses in eastern Afghanistan's Parwan Province hosted ribbon cutting ceremonies this week in celebration of significant expansions in their production capabilities.

For Bagram Food Company, an Afghan-run business started in 2011 by a U.S.-led development team, the ribbon cutting marked the installation of an electrical transformer that will improve their ability to produce bottled juices, water and dried fruits for sale in the local community, said Bill Swaney, the senior civilian representative for the U.S. Department of State in Parwan.

Even before this most recent improvement, Bagram Food has made encouraging progress since its opening little over a year ago, Swaney said.

"The company started with about 10 employees and has since grown to employ around 90 local Afghans," he said. "[Business here] is still in its infancy in some regards, but they have the potential for a lot more."

Swaney and a small group of U.S. Soldiers attended both ceremonies. Following the first ribbon cutting, the group continued on foot to the second ceremony at a local water pumping station. Along the way, bottles of fresh, bright orange juice from Bagram Food lined the street vendors' counters.

The second ribbon cutting, perhaps the most notable, celebrated the connection of a local well to Charikar's electrical grid. Previously in 2008, another U.S. driven project opened four wells across the city but soon fell into disuse because the cost of the diesel fuel used to pump the water from the reservoirs was deemed too expensive.

Swaney said the connection of the pumps to the electrical grid saved the $1.3-million project from going to waste. With quick-response funds amounting to a small fraction of the initial cost, two of the four original reservoirs are pumping water again. The wells now distribute water to about 900 local homes, Swaney said.

Additionally, the now-active pumps will increase local revenue for the city's water company, he said.

Speaking through an interpreter, Swaney talked to a group of Afghans gathered for the ceremony:

"My friends and family hear about some of the attacks that happen here in Afghanistan and they call to make sure I'm OK," he said. "It's nice when I answer them, to tell them about the good news that is happening here, like the work we've done at this pumping station."

In addition to working directly with Afghan officials and business owners, Swaney helps coordinate the governance and development efforts of several coalition teams in the area, including a Korean Army Provincial Reconstruction Team and a U.S. Army unit, Task Force Defender.

Swaney said U.S. funding was involved in both projects. And while a helpful hand is good today, it could be harmful tomorrow, he said. While the combined work Coalition Forces and the State Department do for Parwan is tremendously positive, he stressed the need for international assisters to take a back seat.

"Where we can, we need to back off and let them do it for themselves," he said, "and I'm very pleased to see where we've backed off, the Afghans are absolutely jumping in and taking it on."

Swaney had originally expected the deputy provincial governor and the mayor of Charikar to attend the ceremonies, and even when he received word they would not make it, he still credited their absence as a good indication of the state of governance in the province.

"I was originally frustrated that [they] weren't able to come to the ceremonies," he said, "but on the same token, I was completely psyched to find out why they couldn't come: they were governing. They were busy working, independently, doing what they needed to do as officials."

Swaney later got word that while he was celebrating these two achievements, another ceremony was held in Charikar to mark the opening of a factory there. He bills this as perhaps the biggest success of the day.

"I didn't even know about it, and that's great," he said. "We're not going to be the ones here forever; we're not going to be the ones plugged in. Having an event like that happen without my knowledge is a good indication that they can sustain business on their own."

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