Afghanistan desperately needs to jump-start its economy if it hopes to stand on its own after NATO's drawdown in 2014. But there's a major constraint for a country trying to build a modern economy: electricity shortages.
Afghanistan ranks among the countries with the lowest electricity production per capita in the world. Despite billions of dollars in projects over the past decade, at best one-third of the population has access to regular power.
The Juma Mohammad Mohammadi Industrial Park, on the dusty outskirts of Kabul, is home to about 10 rundown-looking factories, including one that makes candies and another that produces snack foods. The Omid Plastic Making Factory manufactures plastic bags for things like salt and toilet paper.
Inside, three tall machines roll out bags, another prints labels, and three more cut the bags. It's a small operation that's fairly low-tech. But it still needs electricity.
"We have a lot of problems with electricity," says Abdul Qadida Sozai, the factory manager. "There is no industrial power for us. We are using the same power as normal people."
That power often isn't enough to run their machines at peak efficiency, and the electricity shuts off several times a day. So they often have to resort to a generator.
"We have a lot of material that needs a specific temperature, and when the electricity goes out, we have to throw out a lot of material. So we lose money," says Sozai.
He says the factory is running at about 50 percent capacity at most. He says that when the business opened a few years ago, the Afghanistan Investment Support Office that created the industrial park had promised full power.
"We thought that we would have no problem, but now we see they are not keeping their promise," he says.
A Widespread Problem
"Most of our industrial parks in the seven major cities are just receiving a limited percentage of electricity," says Ghulam Farooq Qazizada, Afghanistan's deputy minister for electricity.
He says that industries are getting about 15 percent of the power they need. And, he says some businesses spend three times as much for generator power.
And that's a major challenge for Afghanistan.
"Energy remains a huge constraint for the development of the country," says Clare Lockhart, a former U.N. adviser in Afghanistan. She says that when she first started working in Kabul in 2002, most meetings were conducted by candlelight.
"There has been enormous amount of investment, and there's been some progress, but the outcome is far less than the input," she says.
Lockhart says that's in large part because the international community lacked a coherent development strategy for the past decade and initially relied on costly diesel generation. The security situation hasn't helped either, with Taliban attacks disrupting projects over the years.
The country shows great potential in mining, small industry and agricultural processing, Lockhart says. That could fuel desperately needed job growth, but only if there's power.
Currently, Afghanistan produces about 500 megawatts of electricity — less than a number of Caribbean islands. The country imports another 500 megawatts from neighboring countries.
But that hardly meets demand. Afghanistan plans to import more power in the short run, but existing distribution lines can't handle the available supply from neighbors like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
"Right now we cannot bring more than 300 megawatts to Kabul even though the need is high here," says Qazizada, the deputy minister.
Lockhart believes it's critical for Afghanistan to reduce its reliance on power from its neighbors. She says Afghanistan is well-suited to renewable technologies like small-scale hydroelectric dams as well as wind and solar power.
"There have been very promising finds of gas in the north of the country," she says. "If this can be tapped and turned into energy, this could really help solve Afghanistan's energy security problems going forward."
Long Process Ahead
For people like Abdullah, that can't happen soon enough. He runs a welding shop in Kabul. He says the power is the best it's been in 25 years. But it's not consistent or powerful enough for his equipment. So, he still relies on a generator.
"The generator is harmful to our staff and neighbors because of the exhaust fumes and the noise," says Abdullah. Even though it's more expensive, he says he'd rather use city power, but it's just not reliable.
Lockhart says that even if the international community can develop a clear strategy, people like Abdullah are still going to need their generators.
"Even under the best estimate, in another decade's time only 60 percent of the country will have coverage," she says. "And that's the best estimate."
NPR's Aimal Yaqubi and Shafi Ahmed contributed to this story.
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