Afghan women entrepreneurs test the Indian market at the ongoing IITF

The bright yellow arcs of the Afghanistan pavilion at the India International Trade Fair, currently on at Pragati Maidan, stand out in the large hall full of pavilions of the different participating countries. Adding to their brightness are the smiling women entrepreneurs. Many Afghans are fluent in Hindi, thanks to the popularity of Hindi films and serials via cable TV to which so many are hooked, smiles Aisha Sadeqi, handling customer queries with ease.

Aisha, who is at IITF for the first time but has been twice each to Surajkund and Mumbai, has been in the business of handicrafts and handmade garments for over 20 years. President, Afghan Handicraft Centre, she says a thousand women work for her business from their homes. They mostly work on garments and on crafts like beaded door decorations, though the company also employs men.

“I sell in Germany, here, and in China, and I have an exhibition coming up in Moscow,” says Aisha. Besides, she is all set to return to the Surajkund Crafts Mela this February.

“It's easy to work with Indians,” says Aisha, noting the people are similar.

With the support of agencies like USAID and the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency (AISA) these women are slowly making inroads into entrepreneurship both within and outside their country.

Indigenous business

Nadia Yousfzai, director, Sana Handicrafts & Knitting Company Limited, plans to start manufacturing school uniforms. She says Afghanistan currently imports uniforms from Pakistan.

“A lot of cheap things come from China and Pakistan,” she says. “When our factories start producing they will make good things.” The indigenous products may not necessarily be cheaper, she notes, but they will be better quality and provide employment. She plans to employ about 50 women, with, “maybe, five men.”

A graduate of the American University, Kabul, Nadia is at IITF primarily to forge partnerships and also to test the response to certain products, such as dried mushrooms, dry fruits, etc. This is the case with most of the entrepreneurs. Nasima Mawlazada, president, Karwan Hola Handicrafts, speaks neither Hindi nor English, but words like “namoona” (sample) can be heard in her spirited communication with customers, telling them they can order in bulk. A veteran trainer, she says she pays over 100 women to execute her embroidery designs on stitched garments. Unlike some of the young businesswomen, Nasima has seen many summers. Similar is the case with Laila Istanikzai, vice president, Mariam Handicrafts and Tailoring, with around 100 women employees. Nasima says during the Taliban regime, she used to teach women within doors.

Today, despite greater opportunities, restrictions remain. Nadia runs the Afghan Women Traders' Association of Women's Garden. The Women's Garden is the only locality in Kabul where women business heads can have their shops, she says. Aisha says businesswomen face the usual problems of working women. “They don't get full freedom. Then, they have to work at home and outside too. Now it is improving with education and other facilities.”

There are eight businesses headed by women among the 40 represented at IITF-2009, says Fazel M. Wasit, AISA's investment promotion director. Two have also come under the SEWA banner but are located elsewhere at the Fair. “Next time, we at AISA and the Ministry of Women's Affairs will coordinate,” he promises. Overall the number of women doing business in Afghanistan is sure to rise, he concludes.

More In: Delhi | Society | Metroplus