Beyond academics: AWDP offers practical business skills to Afghan managers
By Michael J. Zamba
May 11, 2018
KABUL—Nigeena Yari is lecturing this afternoon to a class of 20 early- and mid-career professionals about financial management using QuickBooks, the accounting software used by many small businesses.
Though it is a warm, sunny afternoon, these students are keenly focused on Yari’s words and presentation. As she speaks, she gently motions to the images on her Power Point slide and explains their relevance to modern business operations. Most participants are taking detailed notes.
These men and women are at the mid-point of a 17-day course on financial management, dedicating about two hours a day to lectures and professional networking through a local Non-governmental organization called Pesco. For these professionals, Yari’s intensive course will make a difference in their careers—and, in a small way, the future of Afghanistan.
Attendees are mid-career and semi-professional jobseekers; a large segment of them have some work experience. Unfortunately, that is not enough for employers who are demanding current, practical skills.
As part of Yari’s course, attendees take a test to determine their practical knowledge of finance, accounting and other business basics.
“From the first day of the class, we have some students who don’t know the difference between a debit and a credit,” she remarks before the start of her 3:30 p.m. class. “They don’t know about the rules of finance and accounting. They are already working in finance, but they don’t know what they are doing.”
Yari explains that university programs typically focus on theory instead of real business operations.
“That’s why they need to attend these trainings. They are practical sessions,” Yari says. “They need to know the software that is used in today’s markets. QuickBooks software is not taught during their Bachelor program.”
This is Yari’s sixth group of students, with class sizes ranging from 18 to 25 early and mid-career professionals. Financial management is one of the more popular courses.
For businesses and nongovernmental organizations to follow a healthy path to growth, they need trained professionals in finance, marketing and project management, among other areas.
Demand-driven professional training builds employment
Yari’s class is part of a major, innovative initiative by the U.S. Agency for International Development designed to provide practical, business-focused classes for professionals.
Called the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program, it identified the skills needed by businesses and other organizations in the country. Working with tens of training centers like Pesco, the program crafted curriculums in marketing, project management, finance and other areas to equip workers with these in-demand skills. It prepares instructors like Yari to lead the classes.
Now in its seventh and final year, the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program has provided nearly 38,000 people in seven cities with training that aligns with market demands. The program is implemented by Creative Associates International.
Managers at Reliance Power Co. outside of Kabul echo Yari’s comments about aligning college education with real-world needs and saw the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program as a solution.
Hassan Qambari, a Project Coordinator at Reliance Power, is an electrical engineer with seven years of professional experience at two different companies. Nonetheless, he felt there was a void in the abilities of managers—particularly his own skills.
“During this period, I noticed that managerial activities like coordination with the team in the field, as well as other relevant activities, are of greater values for my career compared to technical knowledge of the field,” says Qambari. “I finally realized that the practical work and trainings are of greater importance due to my high-level interest with managerial activities.”
Reliance Power’s factory on the outskirts of the capital is an example of what Afghanistan hopes for future businesses—modern installations with skilled labor that can turn out electrical panels and other high-demand products that effectively compete with imports. Reliance, which has 60 full-time employees and 200 contractors, has room to grow.
Reliance Power enrolled Qambari and three others in a Project Management course offered by a training affiliate of the USAID-supported initiative. The course had 21 sessions, each one lasting about three hours.
Qambari’s supervisor, Ramazan Rahimi, also attended the trainings and said there was a reason why each person was selected for the project management course.
“In each department, we needed one guy to be familiar with the techniques so that everybody could understand each other better,” says Rahimi. “That is why we chose three persons in three different departments, and including myself, for a total of four attendees.”
Rahimi says the project management course allowed attendees to understand how to better manage a production process and apply it to their own companies.
Qambari added that a major takeaway for him had to do with client relations and adapting it to their company.
“One of those changes is building better understanding of our customers and how to manage their orders,” Qambari says. “We had difficulties organizing client’s orders because we were not trained in this area. Now it is very clear for us.”
In addition to better tracking, the client-centric approach allows Reliance to better understand each customer’s specific needs and develop a work process to meet those goals.
“We have good manufacturing capabilities,” he says. “The training program had impact to speed up our work process.”
Marketing matters in Mazar-e-Sharif
In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of the Balkh Province, the morning shift at Almobashir Food Industries is winding down and a handful bakers are completing some of the final orders of the day.
One man is rolling out dough on a long metal table, while a group of women are packaging cookies into boxes. The smell of freshly baked products fills the air.
At its peak production, the small plant with 80 employees produces approximately 20 tons of baked goods a day. Another plant with some 30 employees bakes birthday cakes. Production is up at Almobashir Foods, thanks in part to training by the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program.
During its 16 years of operations, Almobashir Foods has always faced stiff competition from competitors located in Iran and Pakistan.
“Our employees faced many difficulties and could not reach their sales goals,” says Farhad Fayez, General Manager at Almobashir. “They blamed it on competition from neighboring countries.”
To counter the imports and build domestic market share, the general manager sent eight employees to 21 marketing training sessions developed by the USAID-funded program.
“Their skills, talent and their capacity have improved,” says Farhad Fayez, General Manager at Almobashir.
Almobashir’s marketing team immediately applied many of the techniques they learned, including participating in industry events. The team focused on one key differential that the international competition could not match: Fresh, locally baked goods.
“After the marketing training, they discovered how they could improve the recognition of Afghan-made products in Balkh Province,” says Fayez. “It had a great impact. Our customers really showed their interest in buying Afghan products. The quality is better than the imported products.”
The dividends were much greater than merely recognizing the success of the newly trained marketing team members. It meant new jobs at better wages for people in the region.
“Demand went up in the market and we decided to expand our business,” says Fayez. “We opened new branches in other provinces. Not only one branch, we have established several branches and it has had a positive impact on our business.”
Communications and networking skills
Sadia Abbassy is one of 50 employees at the Kabul-based VICE Group who completed one of the courses developed by the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program.
VICE Group, which has business lines that include internet service and plastic manufacturing, selected employees for training in marketing, program management, finance and more.
In the marketing seminars, for example, Abbassy says they learned how to conduct market analysis, identify the best target audience and apply resources to achieve a company’s goals.
Across the different trainings, Abbassy noticed that she and her colleagues greatly improved in two key areas—communications and professional networking.
“Their behavior and their community networking are much better, and I am seeing a big change among them,” says Abbassy, who head VICE Group’s Human Resources Department. “They should know how to network and why it is good for them and the company where they work.”
Through networking, companies learn of potential new employees and possible partners. For employees, it builds self-confidence and expands their list of contacts for future employment.
In addition to all the benefits for both the company and the employees, she says she feels the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program’s training sessions are an excellent opportunity for women to grow professionally in Afghanistan.
“This was outstanding. I have the best feelings of my life in these trainings because when I joined these trainings on the start of my work I was thinking that women are so away from the professional world and professional environment of working,” says Abbassy. “It helped me to have the feeling that yes, women can do and women can be at any position that they want.”
Indeed, the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program originally set a goal that 25 percent of trainees would be women. Today, women comprise 36 percent of graduates, almost 15,500 in total.
Building a better Afghanistan
More than building employees’ skills and helping businesses to grow, the program is contributing to something even bigger, according to participants.
Nigeena Yari, the Kabul-based trainer with Pesco, says standing in front of groups of students who are eager to learn the intricacies of finance and business is very exciting.
She says there is one other important motivating factor: “I feel proud that I am doing something for my country, for youth and also for jobseekers.”
With reporting from Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif by Aziz Gulbahari