Afghan woman is all about business

January 29, 2008

Entrepreneur Kamela Sediqi teaches Afghans around the country the skills they need to start ventures.

Kabul, Afghanistan – In a small office hidden behind a gate in Kabul, Kamela Sediqi sits at her laptop and builds her business. The unlikely entrepreneur is the architect of Kaweyan Business Development Services, a consulting firm she started in 2004 with only her computer and her determination.

Barely 30 and on her third startup, Ms. Sediqi employs 25 men and women, more than half of them full time. She started her first venture, a tailoring business, to support her mother and brother during Taliban rule. In the end, it provided work for more than 100 women. And it gave Sediqi the entrepreneurial bug that eventually led her to Kaweyan – a service firm that had few capital needs at the outset.

Now, traveling across the country on buses and planes operating on unpredictable schedules, Sediqi trains adults in the basics that will help them launch their own ventures. Over a few days, Sediqi teaches skills ranging from developing an idea to marketing and accounting. Many participants go on to start their own businesses.

Sediqi’s goal is to grow Kaweyan into one of South Asia’s leading consultancies. By the end of January, the firm will be operating in Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, and Herat, making national reach nearly a reality. Many of Sediqi’s contracts still come from foreign donors, but that is changing as Kaweyan matures and the private sector develops.

Longtime clients say they are impressed with Sediqi’s growth – and see her gender as an opportunity in this segregated society.

“With her training materials and her approach, she is able to put her clients at ease,” says Bryan Rhodes, head of a US Agency for International Development program to grow Afghan small business. “And [being female] opens up a market segment…. She can train men and women where others cannot.”

The success of Sediqi and a handful of other Afghan businesswomen come amid difficult circumstances, despite steady growth in the overall economy. In the face of a resurgent Taliban, stagnant reconstruction, and the high-profile kidnappings of foreign aid workers, these women push forward, propelled by entrepreneurial grit and desire to support their families. While no official figures track their numbers, they can be found in pockets of Afghanistan, launching consultancies, furniture factories, and printing houses. Many of them say better business conditions, rather than more talk of their plight, are critical.

“Business is the only way to support Afghanistan,” says Sediqi, noting that the foreign money now funding the country soon will dry up. “We can make our country by establishing businesses and supporting businesses and creating more investment.”

Government officials say business is critical to women’s advancement as well as Afghanistan’s, tracing some of the stubbornness of the hurdles they face to an “externally injected” aid effort.

“The women’s thing here, particularly with the international community, is very politicized,” says Omar Zakhilwal, president of the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency. “It is more of a show than substance. We should focus on meaningful economic progress, and that is sustainable economic development.”

Aid workers argue that the social structure makes bringing women into the fold a struggle. “Our entrepreneurship program comes from very strong market analysis, which does make it more difficult to incorporate women because the range of activities that women can undertake for cultural reasons is very constrained,” says Joanne Trotter of the Aga Khan Development Network.

Visitors wandering around a recent agricultural fair in Kabul saw the challenge on display. In stall after stall, women sold the same wares: handicrafts, jewelry, and traditional clothing.

“A lot of women are interested in business but there is a lack of markets – that is the main problem,” said Zahra Sharifi of the Daikondi Women’s Business Association as she tried to draw in a rare customer. Seated nearby, her husband nodded, saying he supported his wife’s work and just wished she sold more of it.

Alongside the pitfalls facing all business owners, including limited capital, marginal infrastructure, and corruption, women face societal constraints and growing insecurity.

Yet Sediqi remains committed to bringing her work to even the more conservative and less secure areas of her country, including the region from which an American aid worker recently was abducted. On those trips, she gladly dons her burqa and boards a bus.

Once she arrives, Sediqi stands before a room full of men, facing a slew of questions, such as whether she is married (she is) and whether her family approves of her work (it does). She must convince her audience to take her seriously despite her gender and youth. She does this by speaking in terms they know: family and the Koran.

“I say to them, ‘I come to you as a sister and daughter to share my experience,'” says Sediqi. Most of the time, she wins them over. One man told her he would educate his daughter if he could be certain she would turn out like Sediqi.

Back in Kabul, she is up against high rents and even higher energy prices. And she must battle for talented staff against well-paying international agencies. Yet Sediqi is fueled by a belief that small business can make a difference.

Certainly many, both women and men, are watching. “When it comes to business, the belief is that it is a male thing,” says Dr. Zakhilwal. “Women are seen as dependent. But as more and more women come into the arena,