Women Help Each Other Start Businesses in Afghanistan

January 28, 2011

KABUL — Khan Agha Niazi stands in his narrow street-front showroom and thumbs through a blue plastic folder full of orders from customers outside Afghanistan. Gingerly removing earrings and a silver bracelet from a wood-bordered glass case, he unveils the jewelry he will soon be shipping to the United States.

In the past six months alone Mr. Niazi has received a steady stream of orders from One World Projects and Charities USA, both U.S.-based companies that specialize in fair-trade goods made by artisans overseas.

One World Projects’ buyers say that the company’s Web sites sell out of Mr. Niazi’s goods nearly as quickly as they stock them.

Mr. Niazi, 46, credits his business success to his wife, Bakht Nazira Niazi. An entrepreneur whose ladies clothing and shawls made by Afghan women hang from the shop’s side wall, she encouraged him to start a jewelry line after her customers kept asking for necklaces and earrings to accompany outfits they found at her shop.

Seizing the market opportunity, Mr. Niazi traveled to the eastern city of Jalalabad and engaged a group of jewelers to work with him on designs for his wife’s customers.

His earrings, rings and necklaces sell for anywhere from $8 to $80.

“If I have this jewelry business, this belongs to her efforts,” Mr. Niazi said, pointing to his wife. “She gave me many good ideas. I am using her experience in my business.”

Ms. Niazi is part of a small but growing network of women entrepreneurs now passing on their business knowledge to their husbands, children and friends and encouraging them to start their own ventures.

While no central clearinghouse tracks the number of women-owned businesses, several indicators point to a growing number of female-led firms in Afghanistan. The international organization Peace Dividend Trust, which works with Afghan entrepreneurs to identify local market opportunities, now counts 242 women-owned companies in its national database of nearly 7,000 Afghan companies, with three to five new women-owned ventures joining its registry each month.

In March, the nonprofit will host an Afghan Women First matchmaking event to link female-led companies to contracting opportunities with the United Nations, NATO military forces and Afghan government ministries.

Many of the women entrepreneurs who will attend the event are beneficiaries of development programs started in Afghanistan since 2002 that are aimed at increasing women’s business skills, including the New York-based nonprofit Bpeace’s Fast Runner program, Goldman Sachs’s 10,000 Women, Thunderbird’s Artemis program and the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women’s Peace Through Business initiative.

The numbers to date remain relatively small — Bpeace has graduated 56 high-potential entrepreneurs from its hands-on, three-year mentoring and skills-building program, while 117 women have completed 10,000 Women’s management training, with the goal of reaching 300 women over five years. Eighty-three women have completed the Peace Through Business program, which offers two months of business training in Kabul and three weeks of mentoring in the United States. And some women have participated in more than one program.

Yet backers point to examples like Mr. Niazi’s business to show their investments in these entrepreneurs pay large dividends in the multipliers they create.

“Women in Afghanistan, because of their remarkable strength, courage and vision, are a smart investment,” says Dina Powell, managing director and president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation. “The Afghan graduates of 10,000 Women are building businesses, creating jobs, becoming leaders in their community and giving hope to a nation.”

Less than a decade after being banned from schools and offices by the Taliban government, Afghan women are helping to create a next generation of entrepreneurs determined to support their families and give a boost to their nation’s economy. In a desperately poor country in which unemployment estimates top 40 percent, the jobs they create make a difference.

The founder of Bpeace, Toni Maloney, notes that the program’s entrepreneurs collectively employ a total of 1,300 men and women and generate more than $1 million in sales. And the benefits go well beyond the economic. For many women entrepreneurs, respect within their family accompanies the money they earn, and they become role models for their sons and daughters alike.

“Women found out that when they do business, they have more money and they get more decision-making power in their family — they are more independent,” said Malalai Jawad, an entrepreneur whose silk products generated $8,400 in sales last year.

Ms. Jawad is now helping her 19-year-old daughter, one of her six children, with her own business plan to start a women’s gym.

“She saw my business and my success, and she has been helping me with my work,” Ms. Jawad said. “If she needs advice and help, I give it to her.”

Shahla Akbari, 23, is another budding entrepreneur following in her mother’s footsteps. A year ago she used 100,000 afghani, or $2,000, she had saved during three years working for her mother’s furniture-making company to start a line of shoes for men and women under her own “Made in Afghanistan” label. Her idea is to compete with less expensive imports from China using high-quality local leather — and local labor.

A petite young woman with square glasses and Chuck Taylor-style tennis shoes, Ms. Akbari at first had trouble hiring men to work with her company. Today, Made in Afghanistan is selling nearly two dozen pairs of shoes a day and employing six men and 14 women in two workshops in the western Kabul neighborhood of Dasht-i-Barchi. She now faces far fewer doubters.

Ms. Akbari credits her mother with encouraging her to get started — and with providing an example of how important it is to hire other women and help them to support their own families.

“I wouldn’t have had this idea to go into business without her,” Ms. Akbari said of her mother, Fatima, whose furniture workshop stood nearby under a large, light-colored canvas tent in the yard. “I think it is inherited; I got this courage from my mother.”

Her mother also gave her the key pieces of business advice she relies upon as she thinks about expanding her Made in Afghanistan operations.

“Always, if you are trying to achieve something, you will reach your goal,” Ms. Akbari said. “The other thing I learned from my mother is that whenever you are facing difficulties, you should stand on your own two feet and keep going. Never give up.”

Amer Taj Seerat brought her husband, Mohammad Ehsan, into her soccer- and volleyball production company. From his red wooden folding table in the company’s home workshop, he now creates the intricate graphic designs that adorn the company’s soccer balls, some of which were recently purchased by the government anti-narcotics ministry. The six-year-old enterprise generated more than $80,000 in sales last year.

Ms. Seerat also spends time sharing her advice with other women, the majority of whom live far from the cities in this largely rural country.

“When I go to the provinces, mostly there are wives at home who are looking for advice about what they need to have a good business; they are trying to find a way to support their families,” she said. “I try to teach them to sell eggs and start really simply and then one day your business will mature and you will earn money. Everyone is trying to figure out how to have their own business, especially women.”

And the economy, Ms. Seerat and her husband agree, is the key to creating stability in a country now wracked by a growing insurgency.

“If people don’t have jobs, they are desperate,” Ms. Seerat said. “All the fighting, the problems in society, are about money and the economy.”

Family is the basis of the company. Already her oldest son has expressed his interest in going into business for himself. And her husband regularly travels with her in rural Afghanistan.

“When we started working together, my success was because of his help,” Ms. Seerat said of her husband. “In Afghanistan, when women are working and going to other provinces, people are often saying things and talking about them.” Her husband’s support, she says, quieted many of her critics.

For his part, her husband, like Ms. Niazi’s, brushes aside the chatter of relatives and neighbors in this traditional country who tell him regularly and without hesitation that women should not be working outside the home.

“I am on the opposite side of those people who say women should not be in business,” he said. “Husbands and wives should be partners, share ideas and work together to solve their problems. That will be good for business and good for the future and good for the country.”

Both Ms. Niazi and Ms. Seerat introduced their husbands to the Bpeace program, which in 2010 expanded to include men-owned businesses. And the next class of 10,000 Women entrepreneurs begins coursework this week. To date it has been difficult for these programs to expand much outside of Kabul and the major northern cities given security and facility constraints, but there is hope that they will one day — if security permits.

For their part, the Niazis say they are focused on expanding their businesses. If the security situation does not worsen, they are certain their companies will continue to grow. Now that the couple has not one, but two good incomes, they can afford to support their family in eastern Afghanistan, a region that has seen a growing Taliban presence in the past few years, and send all four of their children to private school.

“Right now our lives have changed 100 percent,” Mr. Niazi said. “Because we have a good economic situation, our relatives want to be like us.”