Afghan women’s businesses discuss challenges, opportunities with Washington
By Jillian Slutzker Rocker
April 10, 2019
A unique, capital-to-capital roundtable connected businesswomen and advocates in Kabul with their counterparts in Washington, D.C., to discuss entrepreneurship, opportunities and overcoming economic and cultural barriers to success.
Simultaneously held April 4 at the Ronald Regan Building in Washington, D.C., and the Asian Development Bank in Kabul, the “Afghan Women-Owned Businesses: Promoting economic growth, stability and equality” roundtable brought together some 120 people in both countries to delve into these topics.
The event was sponsored and organized by Creative Associates International, the Asian Development Bank and the Embassy of Afghanistan. It received support from the Afghanistan Exporters Club in Kabul.
In her opening remarks, H.E. Roya Rahmani, Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States, affirmed that women’s economic empowerment is a key pillar of the country’s economic growth strategy. Ambassador Rahmani is the first woman to lead her country’s embassy in Washington, D.C.
“Women’s empowerment is an essential part of the social and economic development equation for all nations,” she said. “The government of Afghanistan has paid special attention to women’s empowerment, including promoting women’s entrepreneurship and other areas of women’s economic empowerment.”
After outlining key steps in the government’s strategy—including the creation of the Afghanistan National Action Plan for Women, the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and preferential contract policies for both domestic and women-owned companies—the Ambassador noted that there is still a long way to go.
“Despite these efforts being made, these businesses still face challenges like access to finances, insecurity, lack of access to markets for their products and many more,” she said.
For Creative, supporting women’s economic empowerment, particularly through entrepreneurship and export sectors, is at the core of the organization’s origin and a key pillar of its work today in the country.
Founded by four enterprising women in 1977, Creative has supported women’s economic empowerment in Afghanistan for decades, facilitating small grants to women’s businesses, providing demand-driven training and job placement for women in the workforce and supporting exporters, especially those that employ and benefit women, to improve their value chain prospects.
“We have seen that when someone is given the opportunity, that individual succeeds,” said Creative’s founder and Board Chair Charito Kruvant. “We have seen that young women, when they are given the opportunity to study, are so focused. They do so well. When they are given the opportunity to be entrepreneurs, they are the best.”
An economic imperative
Underscoring the importance of mobilizing and supporting women in business in Afghanistan, USAID’s Karen Freeman, Assistant to the Administrator for the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, reminded participants that women’s economic empowerment is essential to the country’s journey to self-reliance.
“We know that one of the most important and effective investments in accelerating economic growth and achieving peace is women’s inclusion,” said Freeman.
She added that USAID is part of two initiatives launched by the U.S. government to bring women’s inclusion and opportunity to the forefront of global development policy and funding: The Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act and the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative.
Barriers and opportunities
During the roundtable, the women business owners detailed some of the main challenges they face: Lack of property or land ownership needed to get a loan, lack of access to finance, lack of education, limited mobility, insecurity and poor access to financial and business trainings, among others.
As the Asian Development Bank’s North American Office Representative Bart Édes noted, “Women business owners experience extraordinary difficulties in penetrating and navigating many sectors and markets in Afghanistan, including local, national, and international. While there is considerable women-generated production that flows into various industry supply chains, women themselves receive very limited benefits.”
But despite the challenges, the opportunities for growth generated by Afghan women-owned businesses is sizeable.
Manizha Wafeq, Co-founder and President of the Afghan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, shared that the 1,150 Afghan women-owned businesses registered with the Chamber have created some 45,000 new jobs. They have contributed $77.8 million to the economy.
In many cases, these businesses are already succeeding, though speakers all agreed they could use the support from investors and other partners to expand, tap into new markets and overcome the myriad of barriers they face.
Wafeq invited global development practitioners and investors to start by switching their way of thinking when it comes to Afghan women entrepreneurs.
She said, “Afghan women are not economic beneficiaries. They are economic actors.”