The Urgency of Protecting Afghan Women Entrepreneurs’ Gains

Afghan PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS(R) cohort being taught in Badakhshan in December 2019 by In-Country Facilitator, Manizha Wafeq.

The number of Afghan women who own and run businesses grew from zero in 2002 to around 57,000 in 2020, including both licensed and unlicensed businesses. This was remarkable progress in less than two decades. I witnessed firsthand the growth of women in business and know stories of thousands of women from Kabul and other provinces who came forward and created businesses in various non-traditional and male-dominated sectors. A number of women pioneered businesses such as restaurants, travel agencies, exporting companies, IT and media services, logistics and construction companies, private schools/daycares, private clinics, and many more. 

I remember Amena from Badakhshan who had started a successful dairy processing and packaging company. I clearly see Nazifa from Parwan who started her company making fresh apple juice and packaging it with environmentally friendly materials. I remember how Marghuba in Kabul was developing plans to expand her organic soap manufacturing company through an online sales platform. These women were and still are the reason for all of us to continue working for their success and flourishing. I started to consider them as role models for the next generation of women choosing to become entrepreneurs, though now I question whether the Taliban will allow them the opportunity following their recent takeover of the country.

After a long-term effort and movement to promote women in business, I helped  launch the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI), which has become a robust platform to promote women entrepreneurs’ interests and concerns to policy makers in Afghanistan and internationally. The drive to start an advocacy platform was instilled in me when I attended IEEW’s PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS® (PTB) program in 2007 as part of the first cohort. When the program continued to provide training and mentorship to Afghan businesswomen and produced more graduates in 2008 and 2009, we founded our PEACE THROUGH BUSINESS Network. After partnering with other prominent Afghan businesswomen, we made a stronger and more inclusive platform in 2013 and officially launched Leading Entrepreneurs for Afghanistan’s Development (LEAD) in 2014. Following a number of substantial initiatives, such as compiling a database of women-led businesses in the country; publishing statistics, challenges and solutions for Afghan businesswomen; and carrying out effective outreach from 2014 to 2016, we finally got permission to change LEAD’s name and structure to AWCCI. 

PTB graduates continued to be part of this movement and led the way for AWCCI’s influence and growth. More than half of the AWCCI Board of the Directors are PTB graduates, and more than half of the active focal points of AWCCI in the provinces are graduates of PTB’s provincial Pathway course. There is so much more to share about all of the gains we made with each one of you supporting our work and generously sharing your knowledge and resources with us. Now, all of those gains are at risk of being completely lost.

Both IEEW and AWCCI have been crucial in building a fundamental base for Afghan women in business and promoting their  development. There is an urgent need for all of us to join together to continue supporting what we have built so we do not lose momentum on the gains that were made. We can continue educating Afghan women. We can continue helping Afghan women sell their products online. We can continue advocating for and raising Afghan women’s voices, with the hopes that  the international community and next government will see the importance of their existence for the country’s economic well-being and provide support for their economic participation beyond the four walls of their homes. 

This is my hope for the future of Afghanistan and for all of the incredible women business owners I know, and this is my hope for our international partners to continue supporting the businesswomen of Afghanistan.  

Written by Manizha Wafeq.