BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, April 30, 2015 -- Six years ago it was a phone call from his mother that got him to travel almost 8,000 miles from home to Afghanistan.
"She asked me to come back to the motherland to assist the local Afghans and see what I could do to help out," said Ahmad "Alex" Momand. "So I dropped out of school, left California and came here. It was a window of opportunity so I took it."
Momand was born in Afghanistan and moved to the United States with his family when he was a baby. Today he is the co-founder of Malika & Refa Environmental Solutions (M&R), a contractor here that recycles more than 50 percent of its solid waste. M&R is owned by Malika Mobariz, a local Afghan woman who was Momand's mother's nursing student at the Afghan National Military Hospital.
"Malika, a local Afghan widow, was working as a nurse at the National Military Hospital here and was being threatened to be moved to another province in Kandahar or submit to the local patriarchal norms the majority of Afghan women face -- submit to the male authority in all aspects," Momand said. "And my mom didn't like that. So she reported it to the inspector general and ended up having the Afghan surgeon general removed from his post. After that, my mom said, 'Here's Malika. You want to do something here, you've got to do it together.' So that's how Malika and I started our relationship. It's all because of my mom."
M&R employs about 60 locals. The Bagram sub-office has an all-male staff, and its headquarters in Kabul is all female. Momand said most of M&R's communication is done by email and phone.
Momand said Kabul offers many opportunities for women to work independently or even start a small business. This is mainly due to the security and international community influence for women's empowerment. These women are called the "modern girls" of Kabul and are often criticized by local men for working outside the home without a male family member. As you travel farther out to the rural districts, such as near Bagram Airfield, or BAF, you won't see one small business or retail business owned by a local woman.
"Aside from working hard labor in the farm fields, it is difficult to place women into such a male-dominated environment," he said. "But as the old proverb goes, 'drop by drop a river is made.' M&R intends to be the first drop of water in the dry riverbed for the women of the Parwan province. We are in talks with the Parwan Women's Farm Service Center to allow only local Afghan women to be the retail dealers of M&R compost. This is our first step in the right direction."
Momand travels here three to four times a week -- with guards. It takes him more than an hour to get there, and he's had some close calls.
"I've been in a few hairy situations so I have to be careful." Momand said. "I remember about four years ago when Malika and I first came to BAF for a woman's shura. We had about 10 of the local women who work with us here to promote women's economic development and women's-first contracting. The locals outside were under the impression that we were going on base for a match-making event. So when we were in our meeting, some guy walks in and tells the major that there's a huge mob outside wanting to stone us as soon as we leave. So we had to take a detour out of here. It was really scary for the women. There were literally hundreds of people outside of the gate."
Talks with USFOR-A's garrison environmental department began four years ago when Momand realized that burn pits were being used on U.S. government installations. That's when recycling discussions began, along with plans on shutting down the burn pits, reusing the material and creating jobs for the locals.
"I spoke to several people at garrison about my ideas because people would leave every few months," he said. "So I eventually got the right opportunity, the solicitation came out for the project, and I was able to bid on it. And I am happy to say that I got the contract."
"BAF is proud to be one of the few places in the world that recycles more than 50 percent of its solid waste," said Mike Klapec, garrison environmental manager. "Over 50 percent of the solid waste collected at the Solid Waste Management Complex (SWMC) is recycled through M&R."
Bagram's garrison command works with M&R and Fluor, another contractor, to recycle waste from every dining facility on the base. The waste is then taken to the SWMC where food waste is segregated from other waste by Fluor employees. Then every evening, M&R picks up the accumulated food waste and trucks it the next morning to its compositing facility/landfill located in Koh-I-Safi. The largest volume of recyclable waste consists of scrap wood, plastic water bottles and cardboard.
Recycled waste is also used to make products that are sold at local markets -- shoes, plastic piggy banks, toilet paper, wash basins, sandals and gardening pipes.
"We are proud to say that, indirectly, we employ over 500 micro enterprises that sell the recycled products, thus stimulating the local economy," Momand said.
M&R also invested more than $120,000 to build the first environmentally-safe landfill in Afghanistan. It's an acre and a half and has been running since the start of the contract two years ago. A team of environmental experts in the states helped design it and provided guidance. In addition, M&R has just received a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development for two complete sets of composting machinery.
"The most important thing about the selection of this area is the groundwater table," Momand said. "After drilling past 250 meters the groundwater table hasn't been hit, and that's very important because what happens is that these landfills create wastewater that can become toxic. And that will not only harm the environment but possibly damage the lives of people who are drinking that water. So the great thing about our facility is that I can sleep on a very comfortable pillow knowing that it's not going to cause any damage to any people or the environment."
He also explains that Afghan regulations for a local landfill are very vague.
"Regulation-wise, it just says to stay away from the local populous," he said. "That's it. They don't really have any regulations for what happens to the leachate [runoff water] and what happens to the methane. So what we did was set the bar very high."
He also has to provide the base with pictures, landfill receipts and waste removal reports daily.
"About 100 to 150 cubic meters goes to the landfill each day," Klapec said. "So he takes off more than half of the waste that's generated at BAF. So more than 50 percent of what goes to the SWMC is sorted and set aside for M&R to take. About 1,000 to 1,100 cubic meters a day is generated at BAF. So that means 10 percent of all of BAF's waste is going to a landfill. And that's pretty darned good. What he's doing is above and beyond the contractual requirements."
Momand has about 50 to 60 employees who work from eight to 10 hours a day. And how many hours they work really depends on the workers.
"We try to make sure these guys aren't overworking themselves," Momand said. "Mainly their job consists of separating and sorting recyclables. Even though it gets sorted at the SWMC, once it goes outside the base, we have additional sorting processes to where we separate the foil, plastic bottles, size, shape, color and cardboard that we send over to our compost pile."
Employees are allowed to go home to their villages, and the company has a four-acre compound right outside of the conveyor area that they can use to rest.
"It has all of the facilities that the employees need," he said. "They can take a shower, rest or hang out in a very beautiful garden where our compost is used. I try to keep my employees as happy as possible. A happy employee, in my opinion, is a happy product."
Momand said working with the community is very important to the company. And with his father's side of the family living in a village, it was easy for him to talk to the locals, speak to the village elders and find employees for the company.
"M&R's main focus is to work with the local community as much as we possibly can," he said. "It was nerve racking that first time I spoke to the village elders around BAF. I didn't know what I was getting myself into. Some people have mixed emotions about someone who is Afghan-American. So I was fortunate enough to come across some really nice people."
M&R is one of the first companies assisting the local community. It paints schools and donates a large amount of materials that otherwise would have been recycled. So far this year, it's given away more than 1,000 cubic meters of cabinets, mattresses and bed frames.
According to Klapec, this year the reduction in personnel at BAF has caused an oversupply of mattresses, bed frames and metal cabinets. So instead of sending it all to the SWMC for recycling as usual, Momand offered to hold a donation program for the local community.
As part of M&R's contract to remove solid waste, it picks up a truckload or so of mattresses just about every day. Technically, they can dispose of it however they choose -- take it apart, sell it or landfill it. But they don't.
"Their contract just says they have to dispose of anything they pick up in accordance with Afghanistan environmental laws," Klapec said. "The two times they had a big donation was when there was a large amount to pick up. In January, it was when a large area was descoped. The latest was similar and occurred when I got a phone call from someone saying they had a large amount of mattresses. Having the donation program from M&R to the community is nothing we ask them to do. They do it because (Momand) wants to help the community."
"The whole point of doing all of this is so that we can give back to the local community as much as we can," Momand said. "We also try to help out the elderly because most sleep on dirt floors. And the hope and the future of Afghanistan, of working out here for the last six years, is the youth. One by one if we Afghans stand together, we can rebuild our country. Working shoulder to shoulder we can build a future of peace and economic prosperity for generations to come."