Businesswomen discuss challenges in rural, peri-urban and urban contexts

A roundtable of nearly 100 Afghan women entrepreneurs, business leaders and artisans at a business development and networking session in the Western province of Herat would have once been considered unimaginable in Afghanistan.

But this Dec. 8 roundtable, part of a two-day forum organized and hosted by Creative Associates International in the province of Herat, is a testament to Afghan women’s resilience in a country that continues to be plagued by war, instability and gender inequality.

Co-sponsored with eight Afghan trade organizations and businesses, the forum addressed the region’s economic future and the challenges facing the private sector, with a focus on women entrepreneurs and youth-led startups. The forum was one event in a series of meetings and conventions Creative leadership facilitated with government officials and local leaders in Herat. Co-sponsors included the Herat Chamber of Commerce and Investment, the Herat Chamber of Industries and Mines, the Afghanistan Microfinance Association and the Afghanistan Exporters Club, among others.

The two-day forum kicked off with the Afghanistan Women-owned Businesses Roundtable. Speaking to the group, Creative CEO and President Leland Kruvant said women’s economic empowerment in Afghanistan is “one of the most important and effective investments in accelerating economic growth and achieving a sustainable peace.”

The roundtable’s discussions highlighted how women’s participation in non-traditional sectors, like recycling, media and saffron production through aeroponics, has grown in the region, and the potential women’s empowerment brings for economic expansion.

Herat’s Director of Women’s Affairs, Anisa Sarwari, noted that Herat offers solid momentum for women entering the market.

“Herat has the highest number of women-owned businesses [in Afghanistan] and women in business. To fully take advantage of this opportunity, women and men need to work collaboratively and in partnership,” Sarwari told participants.

Overcoming obstacles in a new era for Afghan women

Despite advances women have made in recent years, achieving gender equality and full economic inclusion in Afghanistan remains a challenge. Afghanistan lags behind other developing countries in female education.

“I was immensely impressed with the courage, tenacity and business acumen of the Afghan businesswomen I met there and their contributions to the economy,” said Kruvant reflecting on the event.

In Herat, women not only face gender-related biases, but also the difficulties that come from living in rural and peri-urban regions with more limited access to resources.

Carpet weavers
Weaving centers give Afghan women a chance to work in groups and leave the isolation of their home. Photo by Jim Huylebroek.

The roundtable’s attendees cited an inability to get financing and collateral, as well as a lack of technical support, business development services, and education as major hindrances to getting their businesses off the ground. They also expressed need for professional training and expert guidance on how to enhance the quality of their products for international sales and how to position them in international trade fairs.

To address these issues with the attendees, the forum brought the Afghan Women Chamber of Commerce and Industries (AWCCI), a non-government organization representing women-owned businesses and exporters, and the Afghanistan Microfinance Association (AMA). The AMA had five member organizations present their businesses to the women and offered one-on-one consultations.

AWCCI’s founder and chairwoman Manizha Wafeq emphasized that drawing on women’s experience is necessary for economic development and for fostering a collaborative business environment.

“To see you all in an event like this where you are consulted on the design for an anticipated project that Creative plans to apply for is groundbreaking,” said Wafeq. “We’ve worked together for a long time and understand the importance of sustainable partnerships in designing and implementing projects together. We believe in your ideas, listen to you and work with you to ensure all are reflected in project designs.”

Looking ahead

The solutions that women at the roundtable discussed included establishing centralized hubs in rural areas for resources and showcasing products, easing eligibility requirements for women to access loans such as collateral and entrepreneurship workshops designed specifically for women.

Bringing needed reforms like these won’t be easy, but there are trailblazers already proving what Afghan women are capable of.

“If you would like to become an entrepreneur or are someone that has just started, you need to understand that this is a long journey,” said Wafeq. “It requires dedication, commitment, discipline and lots of learning.”

Kruvant also shared some more personal inspiration with the women at the roundtable: Creative Associates International was founded by four women in a time when female-owned development ventures were considered pioneering.

The Afghan Girls’ Robotics Team leads the way

Perhaps no one at the events better exemplified women’s pioneering spirit than the Afghan Girls’ Robotics team. Among the women Creative leadership met with during their visit was a group of teenage girls that made international headlines after they were temporarily denied visas to enter the United States for a robotics competition in Washington, D.C. in July, 2019. There, the Afghan Girls’ Robotics Team went on to win a silver medal for their ball-sorting robot built to distinguish contaminated from clean water.

Afghan Girls Robotics Team

Herat Governor Abdul Qayom Rahimi also met with the Girls’ Robotics Team, which hails from his province. Speaking to Creative’s executives during a separate meeting, the governor said that just two decades ago, an all-girls robotics team would have been inconceivable.

“For a moment, I went back to the Taliban’s time when I visited Herat and there were no schools for girls at all. I thought to myself, are these the same girls?” Rahimi asked. “18 years ago, during the Taliban time, a 15-year-old girl was confined to her home. Today, she is in grade nine, creates advanced robots and games and travels to more than 11 countries to participate in international competitions.”

The Girls’ Robotics Team’s notoriety stretches far beyond its scientific achievements. Rather, it is indicative of the real potential for social change for Afghan women.

“I am impressed with the progress Afghanistan has made especially with providing access to girl’s education. We will sustain these achievements, make more advances and stand on our feet,” said Rahimi.