Stillwater News Press

August 2, 2011

Oklahoma State professor works with food production company in Tajikistan

By Silas Allen

STILLWATER, Okla. — The Republic of Tajikistan, a former Soviet nation in central Asia, is something of a living time capsule.

In towns and cities, manufacturers work with equipment made by Soviet factories and the only automobiles lining the street are Soviet Ladas. In the countryside, the only structures to be seen are Cold War-era buildings.

The image brings to mind a society that, in most places, has been gone for more than 20 years. But in Tajikistan, the situation hasn’t changed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Tim Bowser, a professor in Oklahoma State University’s Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center, returned from Tajikistan last week after spending a little more than two weeks in the country working with a regional food producer in the Muminobod District in Khatlon Province.

Bowser’s visit was a volunteer assignment with the Farmer-to-Farmer Program, a joint project between the U.S. Agency for International Development and CNFA, a nonprofit organization that works with entrepreneurs in developing countries. The program provides assistance to farmers, farm groups and agribusinesses in developing and transitional countries.

One of the major challenges facing the country’s manufacturing sector, Bowser said, is a complete lack of modern equipment. In some cases, he said, manufacturers are using the same equipment they had 60 years ago. In many ways, he said, the country hasn’t moved past its identity as a Soviet republic. Even the capital of the district where Bowser worked, Leningrad, still bears the name of a Soviet hero.

“It’s a snapshot in time,” he said.

When a part breaks on a machine, he said, replacements aren’t always available, so manufacturers simply have to make do with what they can find. In many cases, he said, companies will take parts from two or three non-functioning pieces of equipment to build a single machine that works.

Tajikistan is located in mountainous central Asia, bordered by Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north and China to the east. After it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan almost immediately fell into a civil war between regional factions that lasted until 1997.

Tajikistan was one of the poorest republics in the Soviet Union, and it remains the poorest country in the region today. The conflict was one of the factors that prevented Tajikistan from developing as quickly as other former Soviet countries such as Ukraine, Bowser said. The country was also affected by relative isolation, he said, meaning it doesn’t benefit from international trade and foreign assistance.

“It’s kind of a hidden place,” he said.

During his time in Tajikistan, Bowser worked with a small food processor in the village of Dendiston in Khatlon Province. The company is a family-owned enterprise called Oila, the Tajik word for “family.” The company is the only food processor in the region, and it produces canned fruit and vegetable products including jams, pickles and juices that are sold locally.

One of the major problems facing the production sector of the economy, Bowser said, is that the notion of entrepreneurship was almost entirely lost during the Soviet period. When he arrived, the company was trying to find a way to make that idea work for them, he said.

Bowser said he spent his first few days simply learning the company’s process. After a while, he said, he was able to pinpoint a few areas where the company’s production process had been ineffective or inefficient. In many cases, he said, the company’s process included steps that were unnecessary.

“I won’t say they were doing it wrong, but they were doing a lot of things they didn’t need to do,” he said.

For example, he said, during the canning process, the company was overcooking its products. In the interest of food safety, he said, the company had been heating its products past the point necessary for heat sterilization. By heat sterilizing the products only the necessary amount, the company was able to save time and energy, both of which led to cutting production costs.

Bowser said he also helped the company switch from glass jars to plastic containers. Plastic is a better option than glass for a number of reasons, Bowser said. Glass jars tend to be more expensive than plastic containers, he said, and they’re much more fragile, making shipping difficult.

“They break as they come in, they break as they go out,” he said.

One of the other aspects of the visit was simply making connections with food producers in Tajikistan, Bowser said. Although he has returned to Oklahoma, he said he plans to keep in contact with the family who owns the company. He said he hopes to return to Tajikistan someday, should the opportunity present itself.

 “I truly enjoyed helping to improve lives of farmers and agribusinesses in Tajikistan,” he said. “An opportunity such as this is second to none.”