Rangina Hamidi's Kandahar Treasure helps Afghan women sell embroidered goods in a war-torn country where security is a constant concern
The Entrepreneur: Rangina Hamidi, 32
Background: Hamidi was born in Kandahar, Afghanistan, three years before the Soviet invasion. Following the invasion, her family fled to Pakistan and lived there as refugees for seven years. During that time, Hamidi and her sister were forced to stop studying by the predecessors of the Taliban, who threatened to burn the girls' faces with acid if they continued going to school. In 1988, Hamidi's family moved once again, this time to Arlington, Va. There, Hamidi graduated from high school with top honors and went on to earn a double major in women's studies and religious studies from the University of Virginia. In 2003, she returned to Afghanistan to establish entrepreneurial ventures for women.
The Company: With a $55,000 seed grant provided by the U.S. Agency For International Development to the nonprofit organization Afghans for Civil Society, Hamidi launched Kandahar Treasure as a nonprofit, with the goal of helping women artisans sell their embroidered goods. The business now employs 450 people and sells in Afghanistan, Canada, and the U.S. Hamidi is in the process of transforming it into a for profit-venture. (Hamidi's story, along with those of several other Afghani entrepreneurs, is part of Laurie Chock's documentary Thread. An excerpt of the documentary is embedded at the top of the page.)
When the world's attention turned towards Afghanistan in late 2001, I knew that I needed to return to help with the reconstruction of my motherland. I arrived in Afghanistan in 2003, a young, inexperienced idealist in the world of development with dreams of creating big changes. Very quickly, however, I learned that "fixing" Afghanistan was a bigger task than I had imagined and it was going to take many people, many years, and many resources to even begin the process of reconstruction.
I started Kandahar Treasure as a way to create an economic base for the province while supporting the advancement of women in the country. A goal of this venture is to make sure that women do not get left behind again. Women have sacrificed a lot for this nation and continue to do so even now as many of my country's corrupt leaders continue to fight for power.
We started by giving about 20 women artisans raw materials that they could spin into a very fine form of hand embroidery on pillows, tablecloths, and clothing. Our nonprofit funder Afghans for Civil Society would then seek markets for the goods, paying the women more than the local market value. Additional sales revenue was used to increase the number of participants.
Surrounded by Suicide Bombs
It is not a cliché to say that trying to do business in a war-torn country is challenging. The most obvious challenge is security. We are operating in the midst of suicide bombs, open fighting, and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force fighting with local insurgents. We must encourage ourselves to work as if things are normal around us. Because if we think about the realities, we might as well shut down our business and stay home.
Then there are the practical, day-to-day challenges of doing business in Afghanistan. I can't depend on a regular postal system, electricity, and mechanics who can fix things—things I used to take for granted in the U.S. For example, we had a small technical error in our office Internet dish. I estimated it needed only about 30 minutes to fix. However, because of the lack of skilled personnel here, the problem lasted more than a month! Similarly, the pace of work here is much slower than probably anywhere else in the world, making it hard to compete in the global markets.
Beyond those challenges, I've also learned there are many issues in the world of aid organizations and nonprofits. The aid world has its own rules and regulations of working within their system. If a program or project does not fit the criteria prescribed by the donor agency, benefiting from these aid programs becomes an impossible task. Donors' strict boundaries leave no room for creativity and unique methodologies to be experimented with by small organizations. A lot of times, the aid community's restrictions leave a lot of projects without the ability to gain sustainability.
Women Tailors Can't Compete
For instance, since the time of the Taliban, many aid organizations have given lots of funding to local organizations to train women how to become tailors. The funny thing is that we have yet to find a high-quality professional female tailor in town after being trained for almost 10 years now! If you estimate the amount of resources wasted for this particular training program, it is a shame that there is no final positive result in the end. But the value of the training is low; women who received it couldn't begin to compete with the male tailors.
I worked hard to understand the rules of the aid community, and I was successful among my peers in the five years that I have worked in Kandahar. However, I decided that the only way I can really help this community is through transforming the nonprofit work to a profitable company. That's because I believe in the idea that entrepreneurship can transform lives and help begin the process of rebuilding societies. I've already witnessed the impact. Women who work at Kandahar Treasure and other organizations are starting to be viewed as economic contributors. That increases their value in the household and in a society that has long devalued women.
We need the kind of aid programs and resources that can be used as a platform to create self-sustaining businesses. The three decades of war and destruction have created a nation of beggars. By focusing on private businesses and enhancing opportunities for ordinary Afghans to fill their days, we will not only help Afghanistan with building its economy, but also help Afghans find jobs so that they can depend on a peaceful and just way of making money for themselves and their families.
Business Training at Thunderbird
I was lucky to receive practical training through two great American-based programs aimed specifically at Afghan women. I learned the basic principles of business during a three-week program at Thunderbird University in Arizona. I experienced firsthand what is involved in doing business in the fashion industry as well as learning what it takes to import and export products through a project in New York (BusinessWeek.com, 6/7/05) sponsored by the Business Council for Peace.
I consider myself very lucky and capable of doing anything I want in the world today. With my education, experience, and language abilities, the opportunities are many for me. I have, however, chosen to continue my struggle with the women in Kandahar because this work gives me the most challenges and rewards. Living and working in the midst of a very destructive war is no easy job. However, I see hope when I see how the simple women have been able to transform their lifestyles with the little money that they earn through our business.
—as told to Stacy Perman
More journals are available in our ongoing Entrepreneur's Journal series.