Boosting Business for Afghan Women

Female entrepreneurs in the northwestern Afghan province of Baghdis say that they have high hopes for a new infrastructure project that aims to boost their business opportunities.

President Ashraf Ghani has personally intervened to allocate more than 300,000 US dollars of state funds to build a dedicated centre for around 300 local women to showcase their products.

Municipal officials said that they had received approval to begin construction in April 2018. Badghis mayor Qadeer Kamran said, “It’s been a month since the construction began, and it will be completed by the end of this year.”

Local female entrepreneurs mainly produce honey, jams, fresh and dried fruits as well as handicrafts such as clothes, luggage, gloves, and carpets.

The first and second storeys of the building have been allocated to tailoring, handicrafts, foodstuffs and art workshops, while its third storey will house carpet-weaving studios.

Small-scale businesses such as these can make a huge difference to the lives of women in Afghanistan. But those wishing to launch these enterprises face numerous obstacles.

Conservative traditions means that women are often excluded from public spaces such as markets, and struggle to afford rents in shopping malls. They also have greater difficulty finding the funding they need to set up small enterprises in the first place.

Women say that they need between 20,000 to 500,000 afghanis to launch a small business, such as food processing or handicrafts.

Ferishta Rafat, who recently established a sewing workshop, said, “Economics have a tremendous role in developing people’s lives, so I decided to start small in order to eventually reach my more ambitious goals.”

But she faces a problem with cash flow, explaining that they receive orders for formal suits and are only paid after delivering these custom-made items.

“In spite of their poor economic situation, women are still interested in business and merchandising,” said Hafeeza Tookhi, head of the association of Badghis businesswomen. “It is the lack of even basic funds that is the main obstacle preventing women from entering the market.”

She said that 70 women currently had workshops in another building, but that between 30 and 40 women approached her each week to ask for helping in launching a small business. They simply lacked the initial capital and space to host their venture, she continued.

Behzad Wahdat, the provincial director of economy, said that Badghis had one state and three private banks in operation, but that none of them ran any loan schemes specifically for female entrepreneurs.

Female entrepreneurs also say that the government has to do more to promote their businesses beyond a highly localised market.

Dunia Gul, who keeps bees and sells their honey, said, “The government should arrange exhibitions for our products at both the national and international level. Badghis is a small province, and due to unemployment and poverty, locals can’t afford to buy these products. If our goods are presented through exhibitions in other cities and abroad, it will increase both demand and sales.”

A further obstacle is that registering each new business requires a license from the municipality, which is not always easy to obtain.

“So far this year, only 20 women got their business license from this administration,” said Badghis mayor Kamran.

Experts argue that little can be achieved without direct government intervention to support women who want to start up small businesses. Although the dedicated Baghdis shopping centre was a good start, a more comprehensive approach was needed.

“So far, the government’s promises to support businesswomen have remained just words on paper,” said conomist Tariq Aziz. “It’s necessary to take practical steps in order to develop their business. Government support could include holding exhibitions, providing bank loans and delivering professional and technical training.”

A spokesman for the ministry of industry and commerce spokesman, Musafar Quqandi, said that the government was doing what it could.

“The government is not able to provide initial funding or small loans to the businesswomen, but it has provided them with 30 per cent of the spaces at national and international exhibitions,” he continued, adding that banks needed to supply female entrepreneurs with seed funding.

Quqandi also suggested that female entrepreneurs in Badghis should establish a proper organisation to liaise with the chamber of commerce in neighbouring Herat - where most of their goods are sold – and in turn with officials in Kabul.

Tookhi said that none of the women she knew had approached any banks to apply for a loan as they had no understanding of the process. Her organisation had asked various bodies including the municipality, the provincial governor’s office, the department of women’s affairs and foreign organisations for assistance or small loans. But although she had received offers of office equipment and other tools, no one had been willing to provide funding.