Entrepreneurship and Sustainability in Afghanistan

Carpet-weaving handicraft, which takes place in the remote, mountainous areas of Afghanistan, is generally associated with poverty. Families weave carpets during the long winters to compensate for the short agricultural season and the lack of arable land. Afghan women tend to develop more artful expertise than the men because social sanctions prevent them from working outside the home and this kind of handwork is an indoor craft. Arzu Studio Hope, an international organization, has championed an innovative venture to help poor Afghan women use their skills to enable a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families. In this blog post, I connect three components of this undertaking, showing that the setting is harsh, the craft is challenging, and the intervention daring. It takes a truly entrepreneurial spirit to identify opportunity in adversity.

The cave where the tallest Buddha Statue in the world once stood

Best known as the site of some of the largest standing Buddha statues in the world, destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001, Bamyan is located approximately 200 kilometers northwest of Kabul and is one of the poorest, most mountainous, and agriculturally least productive areas in Afghanistan. Much of the region is barren and inaccessible, characterized by acute water shortages, small landholdings, extensive food insecurity, and poor soil quality. Bamyan (the name of both the capital of the province and the surrounding valley) is situated between the Hindu Kush and Baba Mountains. The view of the valley from an airplane is pastoral, with farm fields sporadically interspersed with pastures of grazing animals. Historical sites are ubiquitous. Overlooking the valley are the remnants of the damaged Buddha statues, now protected as a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

When I was most recently in Bamyan in September 2014, the days were sundrenched and warm and the evenings and early mornings were cold. Even at noon, while standing in the shade, it was chilly. The air is arid and, after a day or two, I felt it on my cracked lips and dry skin. Summer in Bamyan is short and temperate and winters are long and frigid.

Bamyan Valley from the top of the Buddha hill

Due to the heavy snow during the cold season, the roads connecting villages to the valley are blocked for four to five months of the year. The route between the town and Kabul was recently paved and this journey can now be made in five hours. The road, though, is not safe for government officials, foreign and aid-organization workers, and high-profile merchants because the Taliban and/or small groups of bandits regularly rob and sometimes kill passengers. The roads connecting the center of the province with villages are unpaved, and in summer it takes almost a day to travel from one corner of the region to the other.

Living conditions throughout Bamyan are sparse. The only source of electricity is solar-generated power in the town, which provides lighting for approximately 10,000 houses. Water wells are the common source of safe drinking water. Humanitarian organizations have built covered water wells in schools, mosques, and other public places during the past decades, but many of them are now broken and sit in disrepair because no arrangements were made for maintenance. The primary livelihood activities are farming and care of livestock. Due to the long and cold winters, the province has only one agricultural season. During the winter, the region’s population turns to handicrafts such as carpet and kilim weaving, rug making, and embroidery as sources of supplementary income.

Families without sufficient agricultural lands and livestock are the poorest and most vulnerable. For them, carpet weaving is an important way to earn a living or to contribute to meager earnings from small farms or a handful of livestock. Usually, merchants or factory representatives offer carpet-weaving contracts to these households and pay them once a fully woven carpet is brought down from the loom.

The making of the raw carpet is the first stage of production. Merchants provide the weaving family with carpet materials and a design and the carpet weavers set up a loom. Thread is circled around the loom to make a warp, the floor of the carpet on which the knots are tied one by one. The weavers have a master who instructs them on implementation of the pattern, a process that entails guidance on where to knot which color of wool. Once a line of knots is tied, they are combed so as to appear properly pressed.

Boys untying a few lines of knots that were not woven in strict accordance with the design

The most daunting task of all is tying the knots―around 180,000 of them in one square meter. It is difficult to imagine counting to that number, let alone holding a yarn in the left hand and a crocheted knife in the right hand, tying a knot with the wool yarn on the warp, cutting the thread with the knife, and then repeating it 180,000 times to fill in one square meter of the carpet. Completion of a standard-size carpet measuring six square meters entails more than a million individually tied knots.

Bamyan’s weavers are typically paid per square meter with compensation ranging from US$30 to US$70 depending on how many knots are tied in the space of 100 square centimeters. The three most common schemes made in Bamyan are 30 by 50 knots, a density that makes for a low-quality carpet, 40 by 50 knots for a medium value carpet, and 50 by 50 knots for the highest quality.

When a carpet is taken down from the loom, though, it is still not a finished product. It needs to go through a few additional stages of production including combing and final amending, cutting and leveling, washing, and stretching to be ready for market. These tasks are generally carried out in factories. The merchants provide the raw materials and the loom and know the market as well as which carpet designs are most saleable. In addition, they have access to the supply chain. The merchants, therefore, control the processing of a woven carpet and determine the wages paid out to carpet weavers.

The Arzu Studio Hope Project

Arzu (meaning “hope” in Persian/Dari) is an innovative model of social entrepreneurship that seeks to help female Afghan carpet weavers and their families break the cycle of poverty, providing them with a steady income and access to education and healthcare by sourcing and selling the rugs that they weave in the international market. This practice, however small, is a real example of connecting the local with the global.

In this unregulated market of carpet weaving, Arzu currently has contracts with 81 producer-families. A typical contract is essentially one of weaving carpet, but with a few conditions. Arzu pays wages that are almost 50% higher compared to others in the area but requires illiterate women of the weaving family to join courses to learn how to read. Children under the age of fifteen are not permitted to participate in the weaving and community members are enlisted to avail themselves of several free services that Arzu provides. These households annually produce an average of 300 square meters of carpet.

Arzu Community Garden for Women

For the carpet-weaving households and other community members, Arzu has established three service centers for local women. These service centers offer literacy courses for adult women, laundry rooms, and health workshops for women of reproductive age. They also provide English and computer courses for boys and girls up to eleventh grade and a loom room for those who wish to weave carpet in a public setting. Arzu has also built a garden where women are able to farm and garden as well as to socialize among themselves. In addition, project sponsors have created a kindergarten for children between the ages of four to six (the first of its kind in Bamyan Province) and I was told that the students who attend the preschool often go on to become the brightest in their classes. Arzu now operates preschools at three different locations in Bamyan.

Children studying at Arzu Preschool

Arzu provides transportation to clinics for prenatal and postnatal visits and offers standard children’s immunizations. The organization has also recruited health monitors to visit the home of each weaver to identify problems, facilitate treatment, and provide financial assistance if necessary. Project sponsors also offer workshops to inform the community about sanitation, preventive care, and nutrition.

Part of the reason for the Arzu Project’s success is its gradualist approach, which has not completely overturned deeply seated economic and cultural practices. Other traders and merchants have not resisted its intervention because the basic rules of the local carpet-weaving system have not changed. Arzu conducts itself just like any other merchant, but does so in ways that are kinder and motivated by good intentions.

Concluding Remarks

It takes creativity to tap into the craft expertise of the world’s poorest people and to improve their well-being while at the same time enhancing the equity of the transactional relationship. However, to elevate some of the most vulnerable people in one of the most remote parts of Afghanistan and to build communities from the bottom up is truly enterprising. The most significant feature of Arzu’s approach is that it brings the productive capacities of these remote rural communities to an international market so that their handmade goods are able to realize their greatest value. For instance, a carpet that sells in Afghanistan for US$1,000 will have a resale value of US$5,000 in North America or Europe.

Other businesspeople in Afghanistan regularly take advantage of this differential, but they often ignore issues of social responsibility. Arzu promotes and practices social entrepreneurship by giving back to the workers, encouraging safe employment in communities that have suffered from a long history of exploitation. Arzu relies on the productive capacity of the poor and the vulnerable, encouraging them to build their community through indigenous skills. Women’s rights are also key, since women in Afghanistan need a legitimate excuse to leave their houses and to participate in the life of their communities. The women’s center not only provides education and health services, laundering equipment, and carpet-weaving facilities, but also creates opportunities for social empowerment.

Other international organizations work on social and economic development in remote areas of Afghanistan, but what makes Arzu’s initiative stand out is that it is community-based, participatory, and encourages self-reliance. This is a stark difference from donor-funded projects that end when sponsorship winds down. Moreover, charity alone does not build autonomy.

To be sure, Arzu has its limitations. The initiative has been effective on a very small level. Since its inception in 2004, the organization has expanded into only three locations and covers less than 100 families. Scaling it up will require reaching larger numbers of weavers in rural areas, large promotional campaigns designed to expand demand in international markets, and accountable and effective management.

Nonetheless, through this modest intervention, Arzu Studio Hope has become a vital route for linking the rural-local with the urban-global. The carpet weavers know that their products will be sold in the United States, but they have little to no involvement in this scale-spanning connection. Moreover, the weavers in Bamyan are not involved in the secondary stage of production which takes place in Kabul. They have no knowledge of how the carpets are transported abroad, how they are marketed, and for how much they are finally sold. Carpet weaving has a ladder of promotion from being an amateur weaver, to a design implementer, to a master weaver who cares for the entire loom, to being involved in the subsequent stages of production, and finally to knowing the carpet market and becoming a carpet expert. It is also well established in the carpet industry that the greatest profit is derived by those closest to the end buyer.

Arzu involves the communities in Bamyan only in the initial stage of production. Because the weavers are cut out from the upper levels of production and retail distribution, very little of the profit margin is returned to them. To truly empower the communities, involving them in higher levels of production can be the initial step, for example by setting up a small factory in Bamyan for the communities to cut and wash their products, amend and stretch them if necessary, and prepare them for transport to the market. Such an initiative would dramatically increase the value captured by the weavers and give them a measure of protection from future exploitation.

Despite its limitations, Arzu has to date been a source of hope for a few communities in Afghanistan. The organization has cultivated an audacious form of entrepreneurship that demonstrates potential to change the lives of some of the poorest and the most vulnerable people in the country. Efforts to scale up this model in ways that connect the productive capacities of the rural poor with the international market offer opportunities for enhancing the well-being of this impoverished region.



Initially published in the blog of the journal of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy available at http://ssppjournal.blogspot.ca/2014/12/entrepreneurship-and-sustainability-in.html

2 thoughts on “Entrepreneurship and Sustainability in Afghanistan

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