But Will It Scale in Kabul?

As troops draw down in Afghanistan, a handful of ambitious U.S. veterans are launching start-ups in the country where they once went to war.

“This is the valley where I learned empathy,” says Matthew “Griff” Griffin, a former Army captain, holding a photograph of a procession of Army Rangers winding their way through Afghanistan’s snowy Korengal Valley.

In November 2003, Griff and his Ranger platoon deployed to the valleys north of a forward operating base (FOB) now named after one of Griff’s fellow Rangers, Sgt. Jay Blessing. Just one week after this photo was taken, Blessing was killed during an IED attack, the first of many that their unit — part of the premier light infantry unit of the 75th Ranger Regiment — would have to endure.

Their objective in Korengal was simple: Deny al Qaeda fighters safe haven in the high-altitude villages of Kunar province. But rather than operating from a static network of FOBs, the Rangers had to venture deep into remote, mountainous territory for weeks, living off the land.

“We drove trucks as far as they could go, then rode helicopters as far as they could go. Then we started walking,” Griff says. Their unit had to climb thousands of feet, incurring dizzying disorientation and high fevers.

On one frigid morning, another Ranger in Griff’s unit, Spc. Donald Lee, kept guard on a dirt road, sick with a 102-degree fever. As he stood shivering, two young Afghan girls walked over and, without hesitation, handed him the contents of their small arms: goat milk chai, warm naan, and a jar of marmalade. For Lee, the moment was life-changing. It was then, Lee says, that “God threw me a life raft.”

During those weeks patrolling the snowy peaks of Afghanistan, Lee and Griff saw the hardships of life in that country, a life oppressed by violence and poverty. “Once you see this kind of poverty, you can’t unsee it,” Griff says. “And you feel compelled to help.”

Six years after their deployment ended, Lee and Griff discovered a way to help rebuild the Afghanistan they left behind.

The idea for their company, Combat Flip Flops, started with a trip Griff made to a Kabul boot factory in 2009 while on a mission supporting the Afghan National Army (ANA) combat medic program. The factory specialized in producing combat boots for the rugged terrain of Afghanistan; a thriving business, it was a precious oasis in an otherwise commercially destitute region. Owned by a local family, the factory had become the economic backbone of the community, employing more than 300 people; each employee’s salary was supporting anywhere from five to 13 family members.

While he was at the factory, Griff spotted a boot sole with a flip-flop thong punched through it, sitting on a barrel. “It was the ugliest and coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says.

The shoddy flip-flop was a practical solution in an environment of scarcity. In a Muslim country where people pray five times a day, the repetitive act of removing and donning heavy combat boots is tedious and inconvenient. So, local Afghans created a kind of hybrid footwear: shoes that were easy to slip on and off with a flip-flop top, but with the soles of combat boots.

A pair of Combat Flip Flops rests on a machine gun. Photo courtesy of Combat Flip Flops.

That’s when Griff says he had his “light-bulb” moment. Two years later, Griff and Lee founded the Washington state-based Combat Flip Flops.

The macro goal was ambitious and expansive — to build a commercial alterative for conflict and post-conflict zones, particularly Afghanistan, where state-sponsored solutions failed to provide a sustainable model for peace and development. Griff and Lee planned to import raw supplies from China directly to their manufacturing facility in Afghanistan, which would produce finished goods for distribution in the United States. To finance the initial setup, the two men invested their own personal capital. “If it had value, we sold it,” which included everything from his guns to his motorcycle, Griff says.

Utilizing word of mouth and social media campaigns on Twitter and Instagram, by March 2012, Combat Flip Flops had received roughly 4,000 pre-orders. However, it wasn’t long before Griff and Lee hit the first of many early obstacles. When U.S. President Barack Obama announced in June 2011 that U.S. forces would withdraw from Afghanistan by September 2012, international donors quickly abandoned the country. Consequently, the Kabul factory Combat Flip Flops relied upon received notification of its pending closure in May 2012 as the Afghan First Initiative ended abruptly. Although the Kabul factory had managed to produce 4,000 pairs of flip-flops before closing, they were all defective — riddled with imperfections and tears, adding to the company’s woes. Determined to fill the pre-orders, Griff partnered with another Kabul-based factory, but that factory closed before delivering a single order. By early December, Griff and his team had purchased a new supply of raw materials from China, yet possessed no manufacturing capability.

Undeterred, Griff set up a makeshift factory in his garage in Issaquah, Washington. And for four months, the Combat Flip Flops team — comprising family and friends — labored daily from 5 a.m. to midnight, funded by Griff’s personal credit card. Recalling that first treacherous year of Combat Flip Flops, Griff laughs. “We know our product down to the glue!”

But in February 2013, Combat Flip Flops finally caught a break. Griff attended MAGIC, a trade show in Las Vegas, where he struck a partnership with Vice Royalty, a trade consultancy representing Colombian manufacturers. To Griff and Lee, Colombia, like Afghanistan, fit their company’s vision of helping conflict and post-conflict countries develop through sustainable trade. Additionally, with Colombian manufacturers who believed in their company’s mission, Combat Flip Flops would gain the manufacturing capability it desperately needed. By August 2013, the company’s Colombian manufacturers produced their first successful order of footwear, fulfilling the long-awaited pre-orders.

In the five years since its inception, Combat Flip Flops has expanded its mission beyond Afghanistan with a diverse inventory, which now includes claymore bags, bangles, sarongs, and T-shirts. In Colombia, its flip-flop manufacturing provides much-needed jobs. In Laos, its peacemaker bangles are crafted with metal recycled from landmines, transforming weapons of war into tools of economic growth and social awareness. In Afghanistan, its sarongs are handmade by local women, the proceeds of which help fund secondary school education for Afghan girls. Currently, Combat Flip Flops dedicates 2 percent of the company’s net income to its charitable donations, which include education for Afghan women and girls and de-mining efforts in Laos. In total, Griff and Lee’s homegrown enterprise has provided more than 52 years of secondary school education and cleared roughly 30,677 square feet of unexploded ordnance in Laos.

“What really matters to us is putting those girls to school. We have this mentality of ‘just one more,’” Griff says. “Let’s get one more girl into school.”

Afghan women attend classes in Kabul provided by Aid Afghanistan for Education, a non-profit partnered with Combat Flip Flops, in April 2014. Photo credit: JOEL VAN HOUDT

So, how is it possible for a business model based on flip-flops to gain traction in conflict zones where billion-dollar government aid programs have failed?

The answer, according to Nick Kesler, the founder of VetImpact, a nonprofit consulting firm that provides internships with veteran businesses for transitioning military members with an interest in entrepreneurship, begins with first accepting mistakes made and then having the courage to invest in innovative grassroots solutions.

“I witnessed the utter lack of a comprehensive strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide the basic elements of a civil society,” says Kesler, a Navy Reserve lieutenant commander and former rotary pilot who deployed in support of the global war on terrorism three times from 2006 to 2013. “Now we are witnessing what happens when we [continue to] think there is a military solution to a [complex] problem that really requires a ‘whole nation’ approach,” he says, referring to the use and advancement of public and private partnerships “whereby military actions work in concert with development activities over the long term to provide economic and social empowerment.”

Kesler laments that the majority of development contracts issued by the U.S. government are doled out to large firms with little governmental oversight. “No one wants to play with the small kid in the market. They want to go after the Walmarts of the world,” he explains. “The government gives out these multimillion[-dollar] contracts, but how much of it gets to the people who need it?”

Kesler started VetImpact in 2015 to “repurpose veterans’ skills and relationships to help them search and find international market opportunities and eventually serve as a clearing house for veteran volunteers that want to help rebuild post-conflict countries.” To put it simply, VetImpact facilitates mentorships and internships for veterans with companies like Combat Flip Flops, Rumi Spice, and Flying Scarfs, which are working to rebuild conflict zones through free trade. Although VetImpact remains a small start-up, Kesler envisions the company evolving into an international business consultancy specializing in post-conflict regions.

Unlike traditional development aid programs, VetImpact is built on the “trade as aid” model, which aims to foster economic development through international trade, capital markets, and foreign direct investment (FDI). According to Kesler, merely injecting international donor funds into a country or market does not produce growth. He insists capital must be paired with market forces, particularly profit-driven businesses, to generate incentives for businesses to grow and innovate, which in turn spurs increases in employment.

Kesler believes that, after years of combat operations and sacrifices, veterans are motivated by knowing that “their deployments and efforts meant something.” And by partnering with veteran-owned businesses, VetImpact strives to “build and grow businesses in nasty places.”

“For large companies, the bottom line is to make money,” Kesler says. “But when you’re bootstrapping it like us, it’s about helping each other out — so you both make it out.”

U.S. soldiers carry the coffin of a ranger with the 75th regiment killed in Afghanistan, at an Air Force base in Dover, Delaware, in Oct. 2013. Photo credit: PATRICK SMITH/Getty Images

For many veterans who served in Afghanistan, the idea of returning to a country where they once deployed as warfighters is unfathomable — an unwanted reminder of lost friends and scars that still run deep. But to the three veterans who founded Rumi Spice, a Chicago-based saffron company, their mission in Afghanistan was incomplete, even after they hung up their uniforms. Conceived as a public-benefit corporation, Rumi Spice partners directly with Afghan farmers to produce, process, and distribute Afghan saffron on the international market.

In 2010, as a first lieutenant and platoon commander of Route Clearance Patrol (RCP) 44, Kimberly Jung had the dangerous mission of searching for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on Afghanistan’s notorious Highway 1 — also known as the “highway of death.” Those missions could last anywhere from two hours to two days, mostly in the country’s western provinces like Herat. Jung talks about those missions with an unexpected calm. “Most of the time, looking for IEDs is really boring. Until,” she says, “something happens.”

On one day when something “happened,” one of the soldiers in her unit was hit by an IED. “He used to be really jovial,” Jung remembers. “But afterwards, he became really angry.”

But rather than blame the Afghan men who planted those IEDs, Jung understood that their motivation was economic, not political. During her deployment, Jung watched as the land allotment for young men — the financial lifeline in rural Afghanistan — constantly shrunk. She knew that the young Afghan men who couldn’t find work were left to seek out paramilitary means to earn an income. And for Jung, the never-ending cycle of unemployment and IEDs was not only a pure ideological problem but also a deeply economic one.

And that problem, Jung believed, was both futile — and avoidable. “All it does is leave thousands of broken lives on both sides,” she says.

The idea to start Rumi Spice came in March 2013, four years after Jung’s deployment, when Jung and Emily Miller, a former Army engineering officer, were both students at Harvard Business School. Miller had served a few provinces away in Paktika, Afghanistan. Attached to Ranger and Special Forces units, Miller rappelled into towns during night raids pursuing high-value targets. And like Jung, Miller had witnessed the same violence-inducing cycle that limits the choices of Afghan civilians.

After a conversation with another fellow veteran, Keith Alaniz, they learned of an Afghan farmer named Haji Yosef from Wardak province, who had a warehouse filled with saffron but no customers. Jung and Miller saw a chance to change the economic dynamic in a country held hostage by the opium trade. For years, opium, the essential ingredient to heroin, served as Afghanistan’s primary cash crop, filling the coffers of warlords and the Taliban with billions of dollars.

Tragically, average Afghan farmers must choose between cultivating highly profitable opium for the very fighters tearing their country apart or cultivating a less profitable, but legitimate crop and risking punitive violence for doing so.

Admittedly, saffron production is extremely difficult, requiring “70,000 flowers for each pound of saffron, which works out at one acre per 10lb,” according to the Telegraph. Yet, the complications of saffron production make it the world’s most expensive spice, averaging $1,500 per pound or $15 per gram. Nevertheless, despite the high demand and profit margins of saffron, the average Afghan saffron farmer earns roughly $400 to $600 annually, a small fraction of the crop’s market value.

Determined to empower Afghan saffron farmers, Jung hand-carried the first shipment of saffron from Herat and Wardak in July 2013. She went door-to-door selling saffron to local markets and restaurants in the Boston area. By 2015, Rumi Spice’s network included more than 40 farmers in Afghanistan and paid direct wages to 75 Afghan women, who process and dry the saffron. In addition, the firm reinvests at least 10 percent of its profits back into infrastructure, like processing facilities, working capital for farmers, and machines — totaling 3.6 percent of Afghanistan’s entire agricultural FDI. In November 2015, Rumi Spice established its first processing facility in Herat.

For Jung, empowering Afghan women is particularly meaningful. Recalling her deployment, Jung says, “I [loved] to go into the villages even if that wasn’t what we were supposed to do. [We’d] seek out the young Afghan girls and hand out little things — pencils, erasers, candy.” But then, she says, the young boys would come over and extend their hands, as if to say, “Give it to me.” “The girls were always left with nothing,” Jung says. “And that’s when I realized I wanted to do something meaningful, something impactful.”

Soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment march through the Korengal Valley, in 2003. Photo credit: MATTHEW GRIFFIN

In 2003, Griff and Lee searched for al Qaeda fighters in the blistering cold of Afghanistan’s mountains. The same war was still being waged in 2009 when Jung was navigating through IED-laden valleys in Herat province, while Miller continued the never-ending hunt for insurgent fighters. In 2013, on the deck of the USS Kearsarge in the Persian Gulf, the war in Afghanistan remained open-ended to Kelser, a rotary pilot deployed to support the global war on terrorism. Although NATO’s combat mission officially ended in 2014, the United States continues to deploy and maintain roughly 9,800 American troops in Afghanistan. In the latest budget proposal, the Obama administration has earmarked roughly $6 billion for Afghan development, which includes $2.5 billion to USAID and the State Department and more than $3.5 billion to the Defense Department.

Watching the war in Afghanistan trudge on for 15 years, Griff laments, “My friends keep dying. They keep coming back in coffins. And what we’re doing now isn’t working.”

Thus, to the veterans of Combat Flip Flops, VetImpact, and Rumi Spice, their war in Afghanistan has shifted from a conflict of bullets and battalions to a mission of individuals and businesses. Through an uncanny combination of free market capitalism, social activism, and grassroots empowerment, these companies fundamentally challenge the notion of how America should conceptualize economic reconstruction in conflict-stricken nations. Spanning four countries and three continents, Combat Flip Flops has grown tremendously, earning a total revenue of $300,000 in 2015, compared to $75,000 in 2013. On Feb. 5, 2016, Griff and Lee appeared on ABC reality show Shark Tank, where they persuaded Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, and Daymond John to buy a 30 percent stake in Combat Flip Flops for $300,000. Meanwhile, Rumi Spice has grown from a network of 11 Afghan farmers in 2014 to an estimated 60 farmers in 2016. In two years, Rumi Spice now accounts for 5 percent of Afghanistan’s total saffron production with an estimated $500,000 in revenue for 2016.

Compared to the $95.7 billion appropriated for Afghan reconstruction by the United States, the scale of these ambitious companies may seem minuscule. However, to the veterans of Combat Flip Flops, VetImpact, and Rumi Spice, the goal is to effect positive change on an individual level. Their shared vision is rooted in small, but sustainable steps toward a better future for the country they once served in uniform. Ultimately, they demand more than stability and security for Afghanistan; they demand prosperity and liberty.

With unbridled optimism, Jung says, “We’re laying a foundation for peace, one saffron flower at a time.”

Top image credit: MATTHEW GRIFFIN

Sebastian J. Bae is a contributor to Best Defense at Foreign Policy and served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. Follow him on Twitter at: @SebastianBae.