Afghan dairy entrepreneur walks political tightrope to stay afloat

KABUL (Agencies): Brightly coloured milk bottles whizz off the production line at the Milko factory in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, the result of entrepreneur Ghami Mia treading a careful line with both the Taliban and government officials.

To keep Milko afloat, Mia has become adept at skillfully pleasing the warring rivals, which are preparing to restart peace talks next week in Qatar. People from both sides want a share of his success. “The Taliban only take their taxes, but the government take taxes and also our products,” he explains. The company’s dairy products including flavoured milk drinks and ice creams have become well-loved throughout the region.

The company supplies some of the most dangerous towns in southern Afghanistan, such as Zabol, Ghazni and Lashkar Gah, encircled by Taliban territory. With his clean-shaven face and affable smile, Mia says he just a pragmatic businessman who does what he needs to to make the company thrive. “I want to continue living in Afghanistan, and working here. I don’t want to go and invest abroad,” he argues. At war for 40 years, Afghanistan regularly ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Khan, a delivery driver for the dairy who goes by one name, says the local police are his biggest hurdle. “They ask me for money… and if I don’t have any, they want my goods,” he explains.

Despite also contending with a lack of electricity and skilled labour, the owner has managed to grow the business employing hundreds of people and offering more than 30 products, using 250 of its own cows as well as relying on farmers in rural areas. In Arghandab district, farmers line up to drop off their fresh milk at a Milko collection point, an opportunity that has substantially boosted the income of many. But security poses a constant challenge, with some areas temporarily or permanently inaccessible for sale because of fighting, which has dramatically increased in recent months. “If the situation persists, we will be forced to close,” Mia says. “But I don’t want to let the farmers down.”