Afghanistan - mobile factories on their way

This miniature biscuit factory will produce nutritious biscuits for school meals programmes in Afghanistan. Copyright:WFP/Frances Kennedy

From the outside they look like seven ordinary white shipping containers, the ones WFP uses to transport food consignments, trucks or satellite gear. But step inside, and you discover a miniature biscuit factory that can be taken apart. The containers will be shipped to Afghanistan, and then reassembled to produce high energy biscuits for hungry Afghan school children.

It is already steamy at the industrial park near the Italian city of Verona and the temperature is set to rise further.  It’s final testing time for one of WFP’s latest innovations, a mobile “factory in a box” that will soon be producing the High Energy Biscuits used in school feeding and other programmes.  Aimed at processing various basic humanitarian commodities like High Energy Biscuits directly in the countries where they will be distributed, using locally available resources, they promote local development and capacity building.

The factory’s generator is humming, providing the independent power for the machines mixing the nutritious biscuit dough before it is cut into perfect round discs for baking.  Just three short steps from the mixing machines, you are already at the ovens in the central container, where a sophisticated air circulation system keeps the temperatures bearable.

WFP’s food technologists and the machine technicians examine every step, from tasting the dough to the steadiness of the packing process, along with the representatives of the Afghan company that will run the factory in Jalalabad.

Biscuits in the first batch vary from pale yellow to gold in colour. “We need some tweaks to ensure   the temperature throughout that oven is equal,” notes Henri Chouvel , WFP’s Kabul-based P4P food technologist.  A few steps further down, at the packaging line, another team assesses how fast they can run the machine without damaging the biscuits which are fortified with micronutrients vital for children’s growth.

The creation of a mobile miniature biscuit factory has been developed under WFP’s Purchase for Progress (P4P) initiative, which in Afghanistan is focused on bolstering the food processing industry to provide secure markets for farmers. P4P in Afghanistan is funded by Canada, which also supports the implementation of P4P in Ghana and Guatemala. So far, WFP has been able to buy over 900 tons of locally produced high energy biscuits from Afghani manufacturers that receive support through P4P.

V-Bake, an Italian engineering company, was tasked with making the plans a reality; the factory had to be free-standing and mobile, to comprise as few shipping containers as possible and have the maximum capacity to produce biscuits.

“The biggest challenge was the dimensions. We normally create machinery for big industrial plants with heaps of space. Here we had to shrink everything and make it fit into seven containers each measuring 6 x 2.5 metres,” explains V-Bake director Paolo Andreis.  It also has to take into account Afghanistan’s  climate, intense summer heat and sub zero winters.

Under the agreement, which is part grant, part credit, the Afghan partner company will have a secure market selling High Energy Biscuits to WFP. “We will start with just one shift, employing around 25 local men and women, and once that is working well, we will double it,” says Haider Baig from the Omar Farooq Group. “We are very excited because we get to sell products to WFP to help Afghan children, but we can also sell to other clients and in the process we pay back the investment.”

In 2013, WFP plans to distribute 8,700 tons of High Energy Biscuits in the school meals programme in Afghanistan, representing a total value of roughly US$ 12 million. Over 900 schools have been targeted, with almost half a million school girls and boys receiving High Energy Biscuits.

WFP plans to buy at least 95% of the biscuits required locally from three factories in Herat and Kabul (learn more about P4P purchases from these factories here: http://www.wfp.org/purchase-progress/blog/afghanistan-first-purchase-under-p4p) and from two containerized factories in Jalalabad and Fayzabad.  A containerized factory will be able to provide 1,400 tons of High Energy Biscuits per year.
Tahir Aslam, a consultant for the Omar Farooq Group, is enthusiastic about having high quality machinery. “We already produce cake, but learning from this will also help our other production processes.” The company will be using many local ingredients, which will boost farmers’ incomes as well.

In the next few weeks the factory will be dismantled and each of the seven containers will be transported to Jalalabad to be reassembled. Options include an adventurous road and rail journey from Italy to Iran and Uzbekistan into Afghanistan, or a sea voyage to Pakistan’s main port and then by road up  and across the Afghan border.