By Will Grant
Exports from Afghanistan are few. Raisins, rugs, opium, wool, other dried fruit, and that’s about it. It is the world’s sixth largest exporter of raisins, according to the Export Promotion Agency of Afghanistan, and it’s in full control of the world’s opium market, but decades of war have all but killed the export business in most of the country.
In the last five years, exports of Afghan rugs, which account for 47% of export earnings, have dropped 95%. Dried fruit exports are a third of what they were pre-war. Lack of infrastructure and problems with Pakistan have been the main factors in degrading the export economy. Opium, it seems, is one of the only stable—albeit illegal—products to export.
Until last fall, a US-based company called Combat Flip Flops was on track to become Afghanistan’s largest exporter of footwear. That was until . In 2009, two 75th Ranger veterans—Matthew ‘Griff’ Griffin, 33, originally from Eldridge, Iowa, and Donald Lee, 35, of Los Angeles—who both served tours in Afghanistan, started the company as a way to bring non-government-related jobs to Afghans by making high-quality flip flops marketed toward, among others, a NSW BUD/S candidate wearing faded jeans and a white t-shirt at a Coronado bar. They’re sharp flops; one model is adorned with AK rifle cartridge primers over buttery-soft leather.
Andy Sewrey, 39, of Trout Creek, Montana, married Griff’s sister in 2010 and became part of the business. Which was a good thing, since he has the most experience in business. The impetus behind the company was an effort to put Afghans to work in the wake of the coalition troop withdrawal. However small, it was an economic stimulus.
“We’ve been able to provide a sustainable economy for the guys who were working with the US military,” Griff says. It hasn’t been easy, though. “We’ve been through three different factories in the past year. When they announced the troop withdrawal, things just got weird.”
The last factory Griff, Lee and Sewrey decided on was a boot factory across the road from the Kabul Military Training Center. “It was cool. It’d be like having a boot factory across the street from Fort Benning.”
In September, the factory lost its boot contract and told Combat Flip Flops that a minimum order of 30,000 pairs was needed to keep the factory running. While Combat Flops wants to compete with large-scale makers like Olu Kai and Rainbow, it’s a small, young company run by vets. An order of 30,000 was an impossibility.
“So we said if we can’t make them in Afghanistan, we’ll make them in America,” says Griff. “Meanwhile the boat [with a container of flip flop material] is floating in the middle of the Pacific.”
While the boat was waiting on where to deliver the products, a factory manager for Lib Tech Snowboards, a division of Cascade Designs—the Seattle-based parent company of Thermarest, Mountain Safety Research (MSR), and Platypus hydration systems, among others—talked to Griff, heard of the dilemma, and helped design a shop, an assembly process and layout out a factory. Between Christmas and New Year’s this year, Griff, Lee, Sewrey and a handful of work-for-beer type friends built the small (very small) domestic branch of Combat Flip Flops in Issaquah, Washington, about 30 miles east of Seattle. Combat Flip Flops has been making sandals for a little more than a year, and the first US-made pairs are just now shipping to customers. Once a plan is finalized for making the sandals in Afghanistan, the flip flops will again be made there.
The company is indelibly connected to Afghanistan. The idea was founded on the Afghan experience. Besides the sandals having AK primers and poppy flowers on them, Combat Flip Flops donates a portion of its profits to the Massoud Foundation, an organization set up in the name of the military and political leader Ahmed Shah Massoud who was assassinated by the Taliban two days before 9/11.
Griff and Lee are essentially trying to return the favor to Afghans families who were hospitable to the men during the war. That desire is most specifically a result of their experience as Rangers in the mountains during Operation Winter Strike, an effort to drive the Taliban from its high-altitude strongholds. The Afghans housed and fed the soldiers, opened up their homes and their schools to the Rangers.
Now, they’re in Afghanistan for a different reason.
“I feel infinitely safer carrying a briefcase and checkbook than I do a rifle and body armor,” says Griff. “It’s a change in perspective.”
Socially conscionable brands, though, have an added cost. Combat Flip Flops’s sandals start at $65. Labor costs more in Afghanistan than, say, China. Financial credit is difficult to come by. Add to that two and a half decades of war, and that’s the business environment Combat Flip Flops is targeting.
“We know that working in close-conflict areas is difficult. You’re putting a lot at risk. In order to buffer that, we’re going to have US-based products.”
Ideally, Afghanistan is only the beginning. The plan is to set up mobile factories in 20- or 40-foot containers that could be deployed nearly anywhere, possibly as early as 2014. With so much business (including manufacturing and production) already conducted in containers, the hard work will be in the design and implementation of the mobile factories. But Griff’s made similar such projects work in the past; when he was working with Remote Medical International, the organization used containers as mobile clinics.
“We could plant one of these factories in Syria,” he says. “Libya is a good place for one. Put one in Colombia. It’s something that’s not related to government business—it’s just business.”
In the case of Combat Flip Flops, it’s a Veteran-operated business returning to Afghanistan with a different mission. It’s small-business example of creating a post-war environment that’s conducive to growth, security and commerce. The company also continues to support our Armed Forces with profitable donations to the Naval Special Warfare Foundation and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. It also sponsors veterans that “do cool stuff,” like a team of vets that finished the Baja 1000 this year second in their class.
“All our employees are veterans. All our reps are veterans. We used to tell them to go take an air field,” Griff says. “Now we go tell them to go sell flip flops.”
All images © Jed Conlklin Photography, courtesy Combat Flip Flops.