Afghan women break into a ‘man’s world’.

January 10, 2006

When Shahla Nawabi arrived in Kabul to visit her father in 2002, she intended to stay for three months. More than three years later, she is part of an emerging class of women entrepreneurs launching businesses in a nation where women were banned from work and study only five years ago.

“Coming back home and seeing the situation of the country, there was just so much to do here,” Ms Nawabi says of her decision to leave London, her home since 1966, for a city recovering from the destruction of 23 years of war.

Together with her business partner Ahmad Nawaz Baktyar, an engineer who worked with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban leader, Ms Nawabi formed Nawabi Construction. The two-year-old company has completed nearly a dozen construction projects around the country, from a kindergarten in Kabul to a police station in Ghazni.

It is a far cry from Ms Nawabi’s previous career in the European fashion industry, working with companies such as Turnbull & Asser. Yet she credits her years learning the retail business and serving international clients with helping her take the leap to become an entrepreneur in the country she left at the age of six. Ms Nawabi handles most of the business side of her current enterprise and takes the lead negotiating contracts funded by foreign donors.

Her work marks the unlikely continuation of her parents’ original plan to educate her and her five siblings in England before bringing them home to work in their family business. The 1979 Soviet invasion and decades of conflict made those plans impossible to fulfil – until now.

“My father would say the money of this country is helping to educate you abroad so you have to come and give something back,” she says. “I never, ever thought that I would not settle here.”

For those charged with developing Afghanistan’s private sector, the work of Ms Nawabi and others like her is critical to leading the country out of its dependency on foreign aid and into the global economy.

“Our resources in Afghanistan are limited, we don’t have a lot of things,” says Hamidullah Farooqi, head of the Afghanistan International Chamber of Commerce, which claims 2,000 members worldwide. “Wo-men are more than 50 per cent of the society; if we don’t give them a chance, this is a big loss.”

For any aspiring entrepreneur, the challenges in rebuilding this society are many. Three decades of war destroyed Afghanistan’s infrastructure, ravaging the country’s roads and power grid. Security concerns make some regions difficult to reach. And skilled labour is in short supply, meaning companies such as Ms Nawabi’s often struggle to find enough workers. Most of the time they have to import skilled labour from neighbouring Iran or Pakistan. Capital, like electricity, is limited and expensive. A recent World Bank report on business climates ranked Afghanistan 153 out of 154 when it comes to securing credit.

Ms Nawabi’s case bears out the numbers. She and her partner used $20,000 of their own funds to start the firm. With interest rates above 20 per cent and demands for collateral high, they have relied upon reinvested revenues to fund the business. Lack of capital has limited the firm’s growth. It turned down a $6m road contract in 2005 because there was not enough money to secure a performance bond to guarantee the project’s satisfactory completion.

Then there is the issue of gender. Afghanistan’s new constitution guarantees all citizens “equal rights and duties” according to the law but many women say little has changed, especially for those in the provinces.

Six years of Taliban rule left women stripped of rights and confined to their homes. Education experts put fe-male illiteracy rates at 80 per cent or more. As a 2004 United Nations report noted: “The impact of years of discrimination against women, coupled with prevailing poverty and insecurities, has meant that Afghan women have some of the worst social indicators in the world.”

In this traditional society where women are more often seen tending to the home than the store, changing mindsets is no easy task.

Ms Nawabi remembers her workers initially doubting that she was serious about entering a typically male arena. “My crew thought that I was just passing my time, that I would realise that construction was really a tough job only for men,” she says. “But I never really thought ‘is this going to be a man’s business or a woman’s business?’ I just thought it is going to be a good business to go into because there is a lot of construction going on.”

So far her instincts have proved right. The firm has grown steadily, generating more than $900,000 in revenues last year. A $2.5m contract to build part of a road connecting the hard-to-reach northern Panjshir Valley to the capital means that figure should reach several million by 2006.

Setting up a construction business may seem a particularly tough choice for a woman in a society such as this but even for those in industries more traditionally associated with women’s work, such as handicrafts, cultural challenges remain.

Sipping tea in her small Kabul storefront, Nasima Payman remembers the scepticism she faced from male colleagues when she arrived to sell her shawls at the bazaar for international troops. “They were so surprised to see a woman bringing work to a men’s gathering,” she says, but over time their attitudes have chang-ed. “Now they are all friend-ly and come up to say hello and ask if I need help – they are very welcoming.”

It will take time for men’s views to evolve, says Ms Payman, but things are moving in the right direction. “Sure, it is quite sensitive for them that women are working, but gradually they are getting familiar with this and they are seeing that women can do business, too,” she says.

Around the corner from Ms Payman, Sara Rahmani tends to her colourful clothing shop featuring her own designs. A corner mannequin displays a smart beige dress created from a burqa. Ms Rahmani says opening her store marked the realisation of a dream. “It is great, I am quite independent,” she says of her ability to support herself. She launched her business in August 2004 with the help of a $20,000 loan from her brother who lives in California. So far she has logged about the same amount in sales and though the business is not yet in the black, she no longer needs her brother’s help to pay her workers.

“My brother says: ‘You are like a man in the way you work, I am really proud of you,’?” she says.

She notes that she would be doing even better if she did not have to pay 400 Afghanis (about $8) daily for a generator that provides electricity for her shop and workshop. Despite the challenges, she says she is proud to provide work for eight full-time machinists and 60 part-time embroiderers.

For Kamela Sediqi, the important thing is to help create a vibrant private sector in a nation where unemployment is said to top 30 per cent. An experienced entrepreneur who started a tailoring business to support her family during Taliban rule, she is now building a new business consultancy.

Among her clients is the UN-funded programme to demobilise military commanders who control much of Afghanistan’s countryside. Recently Ms Sediqi spoke to 35 of these men about how to use their military skills to successfully launch and run a venture. Business plan writing, fi-nancing, marketing and pricing are all topics Ms Sediqi covers. While it has not been easy to secure contracts or capital in a country where the non-governmental sector overshadows private industry, Ms Sediqi says she is determined to make a go of it. She could easily secure a high-paying job with one of the NGOs in Kabul but says she would rather be involved in projects that create work for Afghans.

Ms Sediqi says the stakes could not be higher when it comes to women succeeding in business. “If both women and men are making money, they can support all of their children to go to school,” she says, not just boys. “For the future of Afghanistan it is very important to provide a good education for children, for the next generation.”



CAPITAL: Long-term financing for Afghan business is almost non-existent. Entrepreneurs get around this by raising funds from family and friends and some women’s organisations are able to provide low-interest loans. An informal money transfer system known as hawala also helps fill the funding gap.

INFRASTRUCTURE: Only about half of the country’s power generation capacity is operational, making black-outs common and leaving businesses dependent on generators, which is expensive. Afghan officials are seeking funding for power projects from donors such as USAID and the World Bank. Restoring the country’s road network is a priority of the government and projects are under way across the country.

LAND: More than 20 years of war left land rights in chaos. Afghan businesses list acquiring property as a significant challenge, making expansion plans difficult and putting off new investors. To address this, the government is building industrial parks in the country’s big cities, with the first one already opened in Kabul.

LACK OF INVESTMENT: Infrastructural problems and political uncertainty make attracting foreign investment challenging. In a bid to bring in foreign funds and know-how, Afghan officials will launch a seven city European road show in February aimed at investors. Additionally, tax rates have been lowered, labour regulations eased and business registration processes made easier.

HUMAN CAPACITY: Decades of conflict resulted in many of Afghanistan’s most skilled people leaving the country. There is a shortage of qualified workers in most industries and illiteracy is widespread. Only about a third of Afghan workers have more than a primary education. To address this education shortfall, the government and international agencies are working to establish new schools around the country, including institutions for girls.

SECURITY: In a World Bank survey, firms reported spending 15 per cent of turnover on security. In some parts of the country, former commanders still hold power, which discourages investment. The UN and the Afghan government introduced a demobilisation programme aimed at integrating these commanders into society and equipping them with business skills to help them move into the private sector.