When Kiyoyuki Kobayashi joined WFP in 1990, little could he have imagined that his career with the organization would be inextricably tied up with the destiny of a group of Hino trucks. And yet, across two continents and more than two decades, he has been the godfather of the trucks that still today make up the backbone of WFP’s fleet in Afghanistan.
“It was 1990. The Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan, and WFP was gearing up for a big operation there,” Kobayashi recalls. “WFP had a joint venture with UNHCR for the logistics of this operation, which would support refugees returning from Pakistan to Afghanistan, and provide food for the populations in need.”
The Government of Japan donated 100 Hino trucks (Hino is part of the Toyota Group) to the operation, with a dual purpose: to carry Afghans back to their home country, and to transport food. Kobayashi was one of a team of four Japanese engineers who came to WFP with the donation, his original role being Spare Parts Manager, assigned to Peshawar in Pakistan, from where the operation was managed.
"These trucks were customized specifically for the conditions in Afghanistan," explains Kobayashi. “The manufacturer came to see the harsh environment in which the trucks would have to work, and made technical adjustments to the base model according to what he saw.”
Once the operation was set up, Kobayashi’s career took him to Sudan, where he worked on rehabilitating the barge fleet that would deliver food in the south. In 1997, he was asked to go to Uganda, and 40 of the Afghan Hinos were being sent out there to support the Great Lakes crisis. He needed to set up a system for managing the beasts he knew so well. A few years later, ten of those vehicles made their way to Liberia – and again he was reassigned with them at a later stage.
He returned to Peshawar in 2002, when the fleet of trucks servicing the Afghan operation had grown to 450 – and still the Hinos were at the heart of the work. After a stint in the private sector, he returned to WFP in Sudan, and this year was reassigned to Afghanistan as Fleet Manager – finding himself face-to-face with 54 of the original Hinos.Now more than 21 years old, the 15-MT-capacity trucks still roar through mud and snow, across mountains and plains, to deliver food to WFP's operations across the country. Not only that – some of the original drivers, mainly Afghan refugees hired and trained in Peshawar in 1990, are still driving the trucks.
However, no matter how well-built or well-driven, even the strongest trucks show signs of aging after all these years, and it is a labour of love - not to mention technical skill - to keep the trucks hauling food. The Fleet Centre in Kabul has a workshop, a museum-like store of spare parts that have been out of production for ten years. Along with a team of resourceful mechanics, only a few months is needed to revive the twisted carcass of a vehicle that’s tumbled off an icy mountain road.
Despite the team’s best efforts, however, the Hinos are nearing the end of their life. Gradually, they will be replaced over the next few years with new vehicles, some bought, some donated. By now, Kobayashi accepts his bond to the Hinos. “I cannot leave these trucks. I have to see them die here,” he says with a smile.