A surprise awaits the visitor to the isolated rural hamlet of Naw Abad Qalah Hajeri in northern Afghanistan near Mazar City. Here, in a country where women are often veiled and rarely seen in public, you will find a woman running a thriving grocery store; its shelves piled high with all manner of colorful goods and a constant flow of customers. A place of business that is full of warmth and chatter as neighbors shop and catch up on the local news.
The energetic entrepreneur who owns and runs the grocery business is Asifa, a mother of five and an entrepreneur. When we meet her, Asifa is weighing goods, taking payments, and talking to her customers. She stops to fling her arms wide and show us the premises, and with great pride tells us about her journey from penniless housewife and mother to respected local business woman.
Three years ago, she began selling groceries from her home to her neighbors. But then, with some basic business training, realized that there was enough demand for her to open her own shop. Since she opened the shop’s doors just one year ago, she has not looked back.
Like most Afghan women, Asifa has always had to rely on her parents and then her husband for money. Today, things are different “I earn about US$100 per month from my shop and with this, I can buy more food, the children’s clothes and books for school”, she explains.
This is an unusual story in a country ravaged by decades of war, and where poverty and unemployment persist, especially amongst women.
Afghan Women have the Potential but not the Power
Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world with 36 percent of the population living below the poverty line,1 and it is estimated that less than 10 percent of the population are engaged in regular waged employment. For Afghan women and girls, the situation is particularly acute. They are most likely to engage only in unpaid family work—on average, women earn only about a third of their male equivalents.
However, life for women in Afghanistan has improved since the fall of the Taliban, although there’s still an immeasurably long way to go. According to independent research, between 60 and 80 percent of marriages in the country are forced—15 percent of which are with girls younger than 16.2 And recent developments, including a law to silence victims of violence against women,3 suggest the situation is getting worse. However, with the 2014 withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) looming ever closer, the possibility of a resurgent Taliban remains perilously real.
Helping women create businesses is one way to empower them. Says one Hand in Hand trainer, herself a woman: “The women I work with face many problems: poverty, a lack of education, and inadequate life skills. But by the time they graduate, I find them strong and enabled. When they start to earn money, they improve their position in the family and in society.”
Early research seems to agree with her statement. According to a recent independent review commissioned by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), women in particular are reaping the benefits of Hand in Hand Afghanistan’s efforts. In a poll of some of the 14,425 members mobilized by November 2013, female entrepreneurs spoke more than males about the value of training and savings, and many described trips to the markets and self-help group sessions as providing a newfound sense of freedom and self-confidence.
An Integrated, Peer-to-Peer Solution
Hand in Hand has developed an integrated four-step program to help women in Afghanistan create businesses and jobs for themselves and their community. The program is anchored in the principle of self-reliance. We look at poverty differently and see grassroots entrepreneurs, full of energy and ideas. Our programs help turn their skills and potential into jobs.
First, we create community groups, mainly women, who support each other, save together, and learn together. Then we train the group members to discover and develop small businesses that make use of their skills and potential. To date, Hand in Hand Afghanistan has enabled 14,000 people to join groups as a first step to working their way out of poverty and has generated over 5,000 jobs in a rural, remote part of the country where these jobs are much needed.
Despite tremendous social barriers, Hand in Hand Afghanistan has been successful in reaching out to women, and female participation is currently 50 percent, well ahead of the
30 to 35 percent target set by the Afghan government for aid programs. Many Afghan women cannot join a program to help them set up a business without the permission of a male relative. We have overcome this by encouraging the men of a community to join the program first—their positive experience then makes it acceptable for women to join female groups.
Step two is business training. In rural Afghanistan, nine out of ten women and six out of ten men lack basic reading and writing skills. So once a group has demonstrated stability and financial responsibility, Hand in Hand provides training in how to start and grow a small business. Members are mentored through a ‘grassroots MBA,’ which includes modules in basic bookkeeping, business development and marketing. The combination of group support and training give members both confidence and skills and, as entrepreneurs the world over can attest, both are essential to start a business or improve its profitability.
The third ingredient is capital. Many of our Afghan micro-entrepreneurs become constrained by lack of capital at some point. In a country where Sharia law forbids charging interest on loans and severely restricts the availability of any form of credit, the group’s own savings become a vital lifeline. For example, a typical community group has between 15 and 20 members and on overage, each group has saved a total of US$340. The average internal loan to members is US$60.
Members themselves establish how the group’s savings should be used—whether they want to make just one or two significant loans each month or multiple but smaller loans, for example. Similarly, it is up to the group to decide which of their members have prepared the strongest business plans and so in whom they should invest their savings.
Asifa was able to borrow US$250 from her group’s savings fund to help finance the first month’s rent on her new premises. She has already repaid the loan—justifying the group’s decision.
If you are a poor person living in a poor village, your business will never really grow beyond a certain level. So we also give the women the support they need to scale up their businesses by helping them either to access larger markets or move into higher profit-margin businesses such as honey making, silk and wool weaving, oil processing, and tailoring.
Our Results Show the Model Works
The program is still in its early stages but evidence from our operations in other countries tells us that these jobs are sustainable. Globally, in the past 10 years, we have generated over 1.6 million jobs and an independent report in 2012 on the Hand in Hand program in India confirmed that 97 percent of the 1.2 million jobs created or supported since 2004 were sustained after three years.4
Back in northern Afghanistan, in Asifa’s village, plans are already taking shape to expand the shop further to create the area’s only local supermarket, thus attracting customers from other, neighboring villages. We ask Asifa the secret of her success. ”Careful pricing and a nice way with the customers,” she explains with a confident smile.