The Bootmaker of Kabul

Shoemaker who was commissioned by NATO to produce army boots now faces bankruptcy.


    I first met the Saffi family in 2010  I was in Afghanistan doing a series on building the Afghan military and NATO’s training mission was keen to show off the Milli boot factory.

    Colonel John Ferrari, then the deputy commander for programmes of the training mission, said supporting the Milli boot factory was part of their Afghan First programme. 

    "One of our goals is to make the Afghan security forces sustainable over time, and that means that the Afghan economy and the Afghan people can support their security forces," Ferrari said. 

    Family patriarch Ihsan Saffi agreed. 

    He first started making boots in Afghanistan in 1979. 

    He and his family fled Afghanistan when the Taliban took over and they returned in 2002. His equipment and factories were destroyed. 

    But, he decided to rebuild, and in 2010, he told me the reason was simple. 

    "Afghanistan is our own country, I want to help my own country, I want to help my own people, there are many poor people I want to bring them here and give them jobs."

    It was an encouraging story. Saffi was already employing about 500 workers and paying their salaries even though the factory was not fully up and running. 

    He wanted to be ready as soon as NATO approved the boot quality. 

    Ihsan Saffi saw it as an investment in security and stability. 

    "If every businessman invested here and opened a factory," he said, "people would have work. 

    "Everyone knows if people had jobs, there wouldn’t be fighting.  Everyone would be busy earning money for their children, they wouldn’t fight."

    Saffi had just purchased a $6m machine to make molded boot soles. He was certain this would ensure high quality for years to come and make him the official bootmaker for the Afghan army and police. 

    In 2009, NATO had promised the Milli Boot Company a five-year IDIQ contract. That is indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity, but with NATO’s aim to increase the size of the Afghan security forces to exceed 300,000, the Saffis were confident they had a secure market for their boots.

    A new reality

    When I returned to the boot factory this week, the mood was not so optimistic.

    Ihsan’s son Farhad manages the business. He says he was shocked to learn in February, that NATO was transferring procurement responsibilities to the Afghan government and that they would no longer be buying his boots. 

    "They will be buying boots for them from China, the lowest quality and the lowest price," he said.

    The Afghan military, however, denies it is in control of the contract. 

    Spokesman Major General Zahir Azimi told me that the contract might be transferred in six months. NATO’s training mission says they turned over control in March. 

    Caught in the middle, is Farhad Saffi. 

    He has laid of 70 per cent of his 150 workers. 

    The remaining few dozen continue to make boots, because otherwise the expensive chemicals needed to mold the boot soles would expire. 

    Farhad Saffi says he will have to fire the remaining workers when the chemicals run out in about a month. Saffi points out his stockpiles of leather and cloth, enough to make 700 000 pairs of boots, in a storeroom welders two years ago were specially building for this purpose. 

    He imported so much raw material because transporting supplies into the country has been difficult since November 2011, when NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border post and Pakistan closed its border to NATO supply trucks. 

    Saffi said if he knew the contract was going to be cancelled, he would not have brought the millions of dollars of supplies into Afghanistan. 

    "Surely we are disappointed why this has happened, and so suddenly," Farhad Saffi said. "They should have informed us six months ago. The US government should have told us that this transition would be happening in the very near future so that we would know what to do."

    From promise to uncertainty

    Now Saffi says he does not know what to do. He has more than 120 000 boots sitting in boxes. 

    He says he can not match the price of the cheaper Chinese boots he may have to compete with. 

    But, he insists the quality of his boots is better, because they are made with real leather that is two millimeters thick, and heavy duty cloth. Saffi says they will last far longer than the less expensive, poorly made Chinese boots. 

    If the government only goes with the lowest price, Saffi will loose the bid.

    Azimi, at the Afghan ministry of defence, says when the contract does come up for bid, the government will want high quality and a low price. 

    "Afghanistan has an open trade policy," Azimi explained. "It will be up to the company to bid and it needs to be able to compete with other companies."

    Saffi is confident that he makes the best boots in Afghanistan. 

    He is hoping the competition will be fair, but Azrakahsh Hafizi, the chairman of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry says the biggest challenge the Milli Boot company will face is corruption. 

    "In every government office, the corruption is huge," says Hafizi. "If you are not corrupt, they are thinking that, you are crazy. It's the mentality of the government of Afghanistan."

    Whatever happens ultimately to the Milli Boot Factory, it is a cautionary tale. 

    One of the workers, Mohammed Nasim, told me there is not another factory like it in Kabul and that if this busines fails, after so much investment by the Saffi family and years of support from NATO, it will discourage other businesspeople from investing in Afghanistan.  

    That would be another setback for this country. 

    NATO forces are heading for the exit, taking with them not only soldiers and equipment, but billions of dollars of potential business when they depart by the end of 2014. 

    In the meantime Afghanistan must learn to stand on its own feet, both militarily and economically. 



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