KABUL -- At Khurasan Press Company, business is booming. Inside the poorly lit printing house in Kabul, a cluster of young men operate half a dozen presses that churn out election billboards, posters, flags, and fliers around the clock.
For Khurasan, and many of the 150 printing houses in Kabul, the upcoming presidential and provincial elections have been a boon.
In the past, most campaign materials were produced abroad, but the April 5 poll has brought new business to the country's budding printing industry. That's because the Afghan government has told candidates this year that all printing material related to the election must be published inside the country to generate revenue and jobs.
Posters and billboards are seen as a crucial part of campaigning in Afghanistan, where reaching voters is difficult.
In Kabul, campaigners have plastered tens of thousands of posters on the city's walls, buildings, shops, and cars. They have also erected countless billboards to boost face and name recognition for their candidates and ensure their messages get across.
'Business Is Very Good'
Shafiquallah, who runs the Khurasan Press Company, says he has a dozen employees who are working 16-hour shifts to meet the unprecedented demand. He says business has never been better, with the company earning thousands of dollars in orders.
"Right now it is election season so business is very good," he says. "We're currently printing a lot of posters. We're printing up to 50,000-70,000 posters for candidates every day."
Shafiquallah say, since official campaigning began in early February, the company has received orders from the nine remaining presidential hopefuls as well as the thousands of candidates running for provincial councils in the country's 34 provinces.
Ahmad Nasim is the owner of Pamir Printing, a printing company in Deh Afghanan, a Kabul district known for its printing businesses. He says the company has so far printed 50,000 posters and billboards for presidential candidates and over 120,000 for various provincial council candidates.
"Every day, we're printing 900 to 1,000 meters of paper," he says. "Thanks to God, business is very good. We have worked hard, boosted our reputation, and forged relationships with customers."
Ahmad says prices for posters range from 60 to 300 afghanis ($1 to $6) per meter, depending on the quality of paper used. He says his biggest customers among the presidential candidates have been Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Gul Agha Sherzai, who both have ordered around 50,000 posters.
This year, Afghan printing houses have reportedly earned more than $3 million for printing campaign material for both presidential and provincial council candidates.
Hamidullah, who runs the Universal Press printing company in Kabul, says that figure would be even higher if all campaign materials were published inside the country instead of neighboring countries, including Pakistan, India, China, and Iran.
Despite the government instruction to have the printing done in Afghanistan, Hamidullah says many presidential candidates are still placing their orders abroad, where prices are cheaper.
He says the government must crack down on the candidates so money stays inside Afghanistan
'All our raw materials come from abroad [so our prices are more expensive]," he says. "We order paper, ink, and other materials from Pakistan, Iran, and Indonesia. It's expensive for us to import. By the time we pay the custom charges and tariffs on raw materials, it's more expensive for us to sell."
Rising Electricity, Rents
At the same time, Hamidullah says some Afghan printing houses themselves have outsourced work to neighboring countries in order to reduce costs.
In the northern Pakistan city of Peshawar, near the Afghan border, scores of printing houses have opened in recent years exclusively to meet the demand from Afghan elections. Although some publishing houses there have been feeling the pinch this election, many are still attracting significant orders.
Afghan printing houses also complain about rising electricity and rent prices and the difficulty of getting a permit to open a business, which some say can take a year.
Since the last presidential election in 2009, the Afghan printing industry has been modernized and its capacity has grown.
Shafiquallah says local printing houses are ready and able to meet all the demands of the presidential and provincial council candidates. With less than two weeks to go until the election, he hopes to secure even more business.
"Whatever size or amount of posters and billboards candidates need [they don't need to go abroad,]," he says. "We have the resources and we can meet their demands."