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County man returns from volunteer mission in Kazakhstan

October 12, 1997

By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Staff Writer

ROHRERSVILLE - One of his hotel rooms didn't have hot water. Another had no running water at all.

But the lack of modern conveniences didn't put a damper on Rohrersville resident Dave Renner's recent trip to Kazakhstan.

It did make him grateful for what he had at home, said Renner, 44, who volunteered to spend two weeks of vacation time sharing his expertise with fellow millers in the struggling democracy.

"We are a totally spoiled people. I found that out right away," said the father of two, who during a tour of the capital city of Almaty was struck by the fact that no children were playing in the streets.

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"Anyone that was that age or older was out selling something, trying to make a living," he said. He saw young vendors hawking everything from cigarettes to sunflower seeds on the street.

Renner, milling superintendent for an Ellicott City, Md.-based company, went to the former Soviet state as part of the Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (VOCA) program.

The 27-year-old international volunteer organization recruits U.S. specialists to consult with small businesses and agricultural organizations in developing countries and emerging democracies.

Renner, who is responsible for production at the three flour mills owned by Wilkins-Rogers Inc., said he was attracted to the Kazakhstan assignment because it would give him a chance to share his technical know-how.

VOCA set up the trip, paid the expenses and tried to make him as comfortable as possible, including assigning him an interpreter, Renner said.

However, it had no control over the day-to-day difficulties they encountered due to rundown facilities, government restrictions and cultural quirks, he said.

"I found out you could live without a lot of things," Renner said.

In one hotel where they stayed, the plumbing system pump was too worn to provide sufficient pressure and they had to get water from a barrel on the first floor to flush the toilet and tote hot water from the hotel kitchen for bathing, he said.

Visiting a mill owner's house one evening, Renner said he found the family living without electricity and was told that part of the city hadn't paid its bill so its power was turned off.

Even when all was going right, everyday life in post-communist Kazakhstan was very different from life in America, he found.

The people there still shop daily in traditional open-air markets, stocked with beautiful produce but "primitive" in sanitation and food preservation, Renner said.

Getting around in the cities by car was a scary proposition, he said.

There weren't any taxi cabs to flag down, Renner said.

Instead, you looked for someone with a car going your way and negotiated a price, he said.

The driving itself was crazy, Renner said.

"You just held on. The drivers were extremely offended if you tried to put on a seat belt," he said.

You have to be flexible when traveling from city to city because you can only buy airline tickets one-way on the day before the trip, Renner said.

Because of that, he said, he had to stay the weekend in Karaganda, a depressed coal-mining town where he was sent on his first consulting assignment.

Renner ended up with a surprising compensation for the delay, however. For just over $1, he said, he was able to attend a wonderful performance by a local symphony orchestra he never suspected existed.

Despite all the differences, Renner said he felt surprisingly comfortable in his professional realm though neither of the two flour mills he was sent to evaluate was up to Western standards.

They were very different from each other, he said.

In Karaganda, the mill had about twice the machinery of his company's Ellicott City mill but only half the production, Renner said.

And it was producing poor quality flour, mostly due to unknowledgeable managers - left over from the factory's state-controlled days - who were drastically underutilizing the fairly modern equipment, he said.

The managers were resistant to his help at first, Renner said. But the mill's new owner, flush with capital for improvements, was anxious to implement his suggestions, he said.

The small-scale milling operation in Aman-Geldi - about 60 miles from the Chinese border - was much better, thanks to a knowledgeable owner and managers, Renner found.

While it could benefit from some technical upgrades, that mill was already producing a very good quality flour, he said.

But it wasn't capitalizing on that by differentiating its packaging from other millers' with a trademark, said Renner, who talked about Western marketing strategy with the owner.

Overall, Renner said, it appears the country has to attack a major problem - rampant alcoholism among workers - to bring its rebuilding industry up to Western standards.

Touring the mills, he said, he saw alcohol bottles in the trash and smelled alcohol on the workers.

Based on his experience in Kazakhstan, Renner said he hopes to take another VOCA assignment either next year or the following year, depending on time demands at his job.

"I really feel I accomplished something, and I feel I'd like to do it again," said Renner, who said he is lucky to get enough vacation time to split it between a VOCA trip and his family. "It's rewarding just to be able to help someone, just to be able to share."

VOCA is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

* For more information on the organization, call 202-383-4961.

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