Bringing local goods to the world: The future of Afghan exports

By Ashley Williams

March 25, 2019

Afghan artisans are internationally recognized for some of their work — particularly handwoven rugs — though their products have not always reached eager consumers.

The country’s businesses and government are looking at new strategies to tap into international markets. The Creative-implemented Afghanistan Workforce Development Program, funded by USAID, supported entrepreneurs like Sayed Abbas of Kabul who are looking to expand their markets.

Abbas owns the Afghan Rug and Carpet Center and is one of the founding members of the Afghanistan Exporters Club, an organization promoting the country’s exports. He recently came to the United States for a flooring trade show in Atlanta and sat down with us to discuss how the export business in Afghanistan is evolving.

What challenges do exporters in Afghanistan face and how have you been addressing these issues?

During the last 40 or 50 years, there has been war in Afghanistan and we’ve been selling our products in bulk to businesses in places like India, Pakistan and Dubai instead of directly to importers. They put the products — like dried fruit, gemstones and carpets — in nice packaging, add their name to it and keep most of the profits.

We can see more of those profits in Afghanistan if we train our people and think about how to standardize our product, get a certification, if needed, and also do quality packaging.

When the trade corridor opened with the help of USAID and the Afghan government, the exporters received a subsidy and were linked directly with buyers in China. Before, pine nuts would go from Afghanistan to Pakistan to China, and one kilogram of pine nuts from Afghanistan cost $10. Now they go directly to China and one kilogram is $35. See the difference?

In 2016, 10 businessmen sat together and decided that we must establish the Afghanistan Exporters Club, and USAID liked our concept. We are working to increase the volume of exports of all local products directly from Afghanistan to all over the world.

How did your collaboration with the USAID-funded Afghanistan Workforce Development Program and Creative change your business?

There are organizations, like Creative, working in Afghanistan to support businesswomen and businessmen. They’re working to issue certificates, train them, support them with grants and also to support them by finding a market for them. If we have all of these things with the support of USAID, the Afghanistan government and the entrepreneurs, we will have a good export business, a better market and good turnover of our local products every year.

This kind of project is the backbone of improving business in Afghanistan. This project is why we give trainings and think about sustainability.

But this is not the solution forever. Instead of thinking on just a project basis, we need to think about the long-term and how we can export our local products in different ways.

Fifty to 60 percent of the export problem in Afghanistan has been solved. Maybe slowly in the near future, maybe in two or three years, we’ll sort out the other issues we have in exports. That’s why the Exporters Club is working on how to introduce their products in an international market, and how to export all of the products of Afghanistan as a standard to all over the world.

Your business prioritizes opportunity for Afghan women. Why is that important?

For years under the Taliban, women were not allowed to work outside the home. But we have women who are experts and very educated, and they really want to do business. For ages women have been doing embroidery and other handicrafts at home, but they were working alone.

Women are now allowed to work and do business, but that brings a lot of changes in the region. It used to just be men who were able to work and bring money home, but now women are working equally with their husbands and supporting their families together. That has a huge impact. Now there are hundreds of businesswomen in the country.

You recently attended the Domotex USA flooring trade show in Atlanta. Why did you decide to attend and what opportunities do you see in the US market?

I went to Domotex Atlanta to see the market and how it is different from Domotex China or Germany. I have a lot of competition in Germany and China, but I have no competition in Atlanta. We’ll have a good market and find good customers here.

The US market is very big, and people here know the value of the handmade rugs. It’s a high-quality market. People here know about Afghan rugs and that they retain their value.

In the three days I spent in Atlanta, I visited a few rug and carpet businesses, and the owners were all very happy with their businesses. If the owners are happy then you know the market is good.

As head of the Afghanistan Exporters Club, what do you see as the most important measures Afghan exporters need to take to grow?

First, we need a market, and then we need support to bring companies to standardization. We need to know about the taste and style of the market. In the US, for example, people prefer contemporary designs and softer colors.  When we know all of these things, we can be successful.

We need to invite designers from places like Italy and Australia to train our designers on design programs. We’ve been using the same program in Afghanistan for the last 25 or 30 years. Now there is a new software but nobody in Afghanistan knows how to use it. We need to bring this kind of experience from abroad, and we can share our experience with other businesses.

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