Syeed Masom ushered us into the main room of his home in the heart of Kabul, motioning for us to sit on the multi-colored carpets that lined the floors. As we settled in, his grandson brought in a metal tray carrying three empty bowls, each with a metal spoon rattling inside it, which he set in front of his three guests.
Syeed ducked outside for moment, returning with a blue plastic bucket and a white ladle. Out of the bucket, he spooned out heaping portions of thick white yogurt into our bowls, encouraging us to dig in.
Although the yogurt was plain, it had a distinctive, almost nutty flavor; entirely different from any store-bought brand I've tried. I got about one-third of the way through my bowl and picked up my notebook to start my interview, but Syeed countered by filling my bowl up to the brim again, motioning me to continue eating and beaming at every spoonful I consumed.
He has every right to be proud of his culinary efforts. The 60-year-old entrepreneur has created an amazing yogurt that is in high demand at a nearby market, and with the money he's earning, his seven-person family is getting better food and new clothes and shoes.
"Life is passing by happily now," Syeed says, his ever-present smile on his wrinkled face. "We don't have any of the troubles that we were dealing with before."
These troubles include the death of his eldest son, who was killed by a Taliban rocket attack that hit a bazaar where he was selling vegetables. Syeed still laments his son's death, but works to keep his spirit alive through the many framed pictures of him that are hung throughout the house and by taking care of his son's family as his own.
The fighting between the Afghan army and Taliban also forced Syeed and his family from Kabul for a year.
"We were living in displacement camps in Pakistan," he remembers. "Life was not good. I was working as a laborer, but we still had no food and no clothes for my family."
When they returned Syeed made a small amount of money cooking yogurt for a few shops in Kabul, but finally decided to strike out on his own in 2001.
"I was looking for a place to get a loan so I can start making yogurt," he remembers, but I couldn't find one that was willing to give me a loan with the conditions that I wanted."
Syeed found just what he was looking for in 2003, when he took out a business loan from Ariana Financial Services, an institution founded by Mercy Corps in 2003.
He heard about Ariana through a TV advertisement, and within a week, had taken out a small loan of 10,000 Afghanis (around $200) that he used to purchase a pot to cook the yogurt, some buckets for storage, as well as milk and other ingredients to get started on his first batch.
Three years later, Syeed is cooking up some 100 gallons worth of yogurt each day, which he sells in 2 gallon containers to a variety of dealers in markets throughout Kabul. And after paying expenses and picking up supplies, he's able to pocket 2,000 Afghanis (about $45) each day - a healthy sum for someone living in the fourth poorest country in the world.
On top of this, Syeed was diligent about making sure his loan was paid back on schedule. "I didn't miss out on one installment," he remembers proudly. This dogged effort earned him the chance to take out a second loan for his business and to be able to sign on as a guarantor for loans taken out by his neighbors and family.
One such loan was taken out by Syeed's cousin, Zahria. This 35-year-old mother of five began an almond-selling business, using the loan to buy bags of raw, unshelled almonds. She and her eldest daughter, Mursal, then use a hammer to crack the shells open, packing the meaty, teardrop-shaped insides into 1kg bags to be sold at a local bazaar.
On the day we visited Syeed, we were able to see Zahria and Mursal hard at work (the cousins share a home in Kabul), hunched over a small piece of slate that they used to break open the almond shells. It's a lot of work for two young women, but their efforts are worth the time they are putting into it.
"I had to rely on my husband for everything," Zahria said, not looking up from her work. "Now, I’m able to buy clothes for myself and my children and household expenses without having to go to him for money.
Just before we leave, Syeed begins his preparations for a new batch of yogurt. He pours about five gallons of milk into a large metal pot that is sitting on a blackened metal stand in the narrow courtyard in front of his house. He and his son stuff a batch of old cardboard and wood underneath the stand, and Syeed sets it alight with a wooden match.
"I start this process every day at 1 p.m.," he says, stirring the quickly boiling milk with a large, long wooden spatula. "After it has cooked for a while, I add artificial milk and other additives, and I leave it to set overnight."
Syeed says he learned this trade as a young man, during his time living in Iran. He marvels at how long ago that was and how he is on his own now, with signed contracts with 40 sellers in Kabul.
And with help from Ariana and Mercy Corps, he's ready to take his business even further. "I'm ready to take out another loan," says Syeed. "I know that things will be even better after that."