From his corner office at the San Diego location of United Solar Ovonic, Qudrat Delawari casts an eye toward reconstructing his native country of Afghanistan.
He has devised a proposal to harness one of the only resources Afghanistan has in abundant supply today sunlight in order to deliver the two things he said the country needs most: electricity and water.
Having seen his country ravaged by 22 years of war and destruction, Delawari, the vice president of North American sales for Uni-Solar, a division of Auburn Hills, Mich.-based United Solar Ovonic LLC, wants to use his company’s durable solar energy technology to help Afghans stand on their own two feet again.
Delawari, 56, has lived in the United States for 25 years, 11 of those in San Diego. He is the brother of Noorullah Delawari, the president of Afghanistan’s Central Bank and a leading figure in the effort to attract foreign investment to rebuild Afghanistan.
Qudrat Delawari’s plan for investing in the reconstruction effort of a country roughly the size of Texas is ambitious.
“In the business I am in, I am not interested in targeting a particular city or region,” he said. “For us the market is the whole country; the whole of Afghanistan. We want to supply our product across the board.”
Uni-Solar, which is a developer and manufacturer of multilayer silicone solar cells that convert sunlight to electricity, would provide for clean, renewable energy.
In Afghanistan today, where an estimated 96 percent of the population lacks access to electricity, Uni-Solar’s solar electric modules, which convert sunlight into electricity, could provide a key to unlocking that country’s economic growth.
The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan reported the country’s total installed capacity is 420 megawatts, most of which was built by Soviet, West German and U.S. firms in the 1960s and ’70s. By comparison, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. said that in 2004, the San Diego region’s peak energy consumption in a single day was approximately 4,000 megawatts 10 times the total capacity of Afghanistan.
According to Peter Hale, who is acting assistant secretary in the International Trade Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce and involved in promoting Afghan reconstruction investment, the electricity grid is rudimentary at best. Outside of major cities like Kabul and Kandahar, electricity has to be generated locally.
Delawari said his company’s modular technology is optimal in such an environment.
“We offer a way to generate energy for households and businesses using only the sun,” Delawari said.
According to Virginia Sheffield, the president of Washington D.C.-based Sheffield Advisors LLC, a consulting firm that advises on regulation and market access in emerging and post-conflict markets, “Sun is the only means of electricity that is readily available and in abundant supply.”
Delawari cites studies that show Afghanistan has the highest number of “sun days” per year out of all countries in the world 260 days.
Sheffield said although there is a supply of oil and natural gas reserves in the ground in that country, it is insufficient.
“Alternative energy is the answer for Afghanistan and solar electric power could bring services and conveniences, like hot water, to parts of the population in remote areas,” she said.
“What we do,” Delawari said, “is provide a product that can be as simple as a light system, to allow a rural family to read, cook or sew at night. Or it can be as complex as a power plant that can supply energy to a whole city or village.”
Uni-Solar is among the few firms in San Diego even considering investment in Afghanistan.
According to Ryan Singer, an economist at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, who monitors international trade flows for the San Diego Customs District said in 2004, total exports of commodities to Afghanistan amounted to $3,200 (according to data provided from the U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Division).
Hugh Constant, who is the vice president of the San Diego World Trade Center, confirmed that he has not heard of many local companies interested in investing in or trading with Afghanistan.
“The thing is, there isn’t a lot of capital available in Afghanistan, so a lot of funding comes from international funding agencies. The projects that they fund, for the most part are about developing improved infrastructure: utilities, telecom, agriculture, and there just aren’t companies in San Diego involved at this time,” said Constant.
Even in areas such as telecom, where U.S. firms have been involved in Afghanistan ventures, Julia Wilson, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Telecom Council, an association of communications-related local companies, said “Afghanistan is just not on our radar screen right now.”
In an effort to “reaffirm the U.S. government’s support toward bilateral relations in Afghanistan,” the International Trade Administration is organizing a business development mission to Afghanistan on April 24. According to Hale and others involved in coordinating the mission, its purpose is to assess the commercial climate and export and investment opportunities.
The mission will expose participants to high-level contacts and provide access to the Afghan market through meetings with representatives of the Afghan Investment Support Agency, the Ministries of Commerce and Foreign Affairs, and sectoral ministries.
Yet, coordinators said they had not seen San Diego firms or individuals sign up for the mission as of March 20.
Delawari said he thinks it is important for U.S. businesses to participate in such a mission, and said he would have liked to participate himself, had his son’s wedding in San Diego not coincided with the mission’s dates.
He added: “For me it’s a bit different because I know half of the members of the government already.”
So far, Delawari has identified the potential sources for $900,000 of the estimated “few million dollars” that he intends to raise to initiate the distribution of his solar modules. If the Asian Development Bank’s branch in Afghanistan accepts his solar energy proposal, Uni-Solar will have $750,000 in initial investment. In addition, Delawari believes he has secured $150,000 from the government of Afghanistan.
This capital ($900,000) would be enough to support the distribution of 1,500 to 2,000 separate systems, which Delawari estimates will go towards distribution in 10 rural villages, to be identified by the Ministry of Energy in Kabul.
“The good thing about solar is that it is modular, so we can get the project off the ground with very little capital,” he said.
Delawari, who speaks both Farsi and Pashto, intends to return to Afghanistan to aid in the distribution process of the solar energy kits.
The last time Delawari returned to Afghanistan was in September 2002, and he said much had changed.
For now though he has created a private foundation he is thinking of naming “Ray of Hope.” Its purpose is to raise the money for enough solar module “uni-kits” to equip each of Afghanistan’s rural health clinics with sufficient electricity to continue operating.