7th Annual U.S.-Afghanistan Business Matchmaking Conference, 2011

The Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) in collaboration with Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce & Industries (ACCI) and other partner organizations held the 7th Annual U.S. - Afghanistan Business Matchmaking Conference in Washington, DC from November 13th - 15th, 2011.  The event was held at the International Trade Center in the Ronald Reagan Building with related social-business activities hosted at the JW Marriott Hotel in Washington, DC.

Approximately 350 participants that included business people, financial organization representatives, and government officials from both Afghanistan and United States attended the proceedings.  Of this number, there were 50 members from that Afghan delegation including Chairman, First Vice-Chairman, and CEO of ACCI; other members of the ACCI Board of Directors, ACCI’s Director of International Affairs and several member companies.

Among the Afghan dignitaries in attendance were Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock and Afghanistan’s Ambassador to United States.  The U.S. contingent included representative from Department of State, Commerce, Corps of Engineers, and USAID.

The opening event of the Matchmaking Conference was held at the JW Marriott on the evening of November 13th.  Participants gathered for an informational event, to network, and for dinner.  This was followed by welcome remarks by AACC leadership and an opening statement by Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock.  Further comments were delivered by ACCI’s Mr. Khan Jan Alokozai, First Vice- Chairman and Mr. Mohammad Qurban Haqjo, CEO; and representatives from Afghan Business Council located in Dubai, Afghan Canada Business Council, American Chamber in Afghanistan, European Chamber in Afghanistan, and the Afghan Commercial Attaché in Washington DC.

In presenting the goals of the Conference, AACC President, Mr. Don Ritter stated that "with the transition away from vast military spending in Afghanistan, boosting the private sector is the only way to begin filling the economic gap.”  He reiterated that the role of ACCI and its partner organizations are critical on three levels: (1) boosting U.S. - Afghan business connections, (2) informing respective governments of the business realities and opportunities, and (3) building public-private partnerships to support the private sector.

The first speaker of the conference was, Mr. Haji Hasin Fahim, Chairman of ACCI who was supported by ACCI’s Director of International Affairs.  He focused on the business opportunities available to U.S. companies in Afghanistan and the value of partnering with Afghan companies and entrepreneurs.

The keynote address was given by the Afghan Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock.  The Minster laid out the top five significant agribusiness opportunities and also emphasized Afghanistan’s expanding world-class pomegranate crop (with the promise of even greater production).  He also noted that increasing value chain infrastructure, farmer access to agricultural credit, and crop information were three key needs across the agriculture sector.

The 7th Annual U.S. - Afghanistan Business Matchmaking Conference also marked a distinct turn toward the private sector as a major priority for the U.S. government.   Key U.S. officials described expanded private sector activity in Afghanistan.  Michelle O’Neill of Department of Commerce shared the experiences of private sector actors helping to build businesses engaged in Afghanistan.

Eric Postel, a 25-year veteran of international business and leader of USAID’s private sector initiative spoke of the agency’s increased emphasis on the private sector and its importance to the future of Afghanistan.  Mr. Postel welcomed collaboration between USAID’s Economic Growth and Trade (EGAT) program and AACC and its partner organizations.

Mr. Jonathan Carpenter, Senior Economic Advisor to Ambassador Mark Grossman, Special Representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan (SRAP), reinforced this message with his description of the four priorities in SRAP.  These are U.S. government support for new business growth, legal reform; increased economic growth and trade; and expanding assistance to the business community including financial assistance to grow business output.

Panels of subject matter experts then addressed opportunities in agriculture and food processing; telecommunications and information technology; mining and natural resource development; transportation and logistics; construction and infrastructure; and finally, organizations and institutions supporting the private sector in Afghanistan.

During the Conference, opportunities for private discussions were provided by an evening welcome reception, networking breaks between meetings, business luncheons, and a mix & mingle dinner that featured the presentation of AACC’s Business of the Year Award.  The award went to Mr. Ishan Farid Khwaja for the success of IGroup’s designation as an authorized dealer of Ford Motor Company vehicles in Afghanistan.

Additionally, one-on-one networking discussions were conducted for two hours each afternoon and were highly popular with participants.  These sessions were structured to accommodate individual consultations between attendees, panelists, speakers, businesses people, trade association representatives, and government officials from both sides.

Separately, several conference participants were appointed to leadership positions to two working groups: one for Mining and Natural Resource Development and the other for Construction and Infrastructure.  Sulaiman Lutfi, Chairman of AACC noted after these appointments were made, “AACC’s web of international partners from the private sector and government will strive to assist in positive policy-making and investment promotion.”

After the Conference, an ACCI delegation was hosted by Department of Commerce and Department of State to discuss enhancing cooperation with ACCI.  In addition, Mr. Haqjo attended several meetings with State, Commerce, and USAID representatives.  They discussed how the Afghan private sector can play a role in the New Silk Road Initiative, reactivation of TIR system in Afghanistan, and other general areas of cooperation.  The U.S. officials affirmed their commitment to involve ACCI in all economic and business related activities in Afghanistan.