Manufacturing Hope. An Afghan Woman Entrepreneur Brings Jobs and Change to Women Farmers
Mariam Sadat is one proud woman. She’s proud to be Afghan, proud of her country’s progress in the last decade, and proud of the famously good fruits and nuts that grow from Afghan soil.
That’s why she called her rapidly expanding company, the Afghan Pride Association. While it’s a profit-making enterprise, it’s also a network of 350 women across three provinces in Afghanistan. The women are farmers and they are using state-of-the-art solar technology that Mariam has acquired for them to process high quality dried fruits and nuts native to Afghanistan, like pistachios, almonds, raisins and walnuts. Mariam sells the packaged products to shops and hotels, and she regularly does the exhibitions circuits in Kabul.
Over lunch in a Kabul restaurant in February, her two daughters in tow, she tells me about how she got the idea for this line of business when she was employed with the Afghan Women’s Business Council as a trainer. Travelling around the country to train women farmers for the Council, she witnessed how women in agriculture toiled long hours but then earned little income in return. Women were involved in every single stage of processing, from the planting, harvesting and sorting to the processing, and yet they had no control over their incomes and no access to the markets where the products were eventually sold. Their husbands kept the money that came from the women’s labour. “They do all the work, and have no decision-making power,” she said.
The farmers were also using old technology and the processing was sloppy, letting dust in, and making for a less attractive (and less clean) product. Mariam reasoned that if women received training in newer technologies for processing and had direct access to markets, they would be more empowered in their livelihoods. She wanted to see these women make money of their own.
Today, the women do make money and so does she. It’s a business she describes as “very profitable,” and now she's looking to expand to foreign markets. Earlier this year, she prepared her first shipment to Greece. Now she wants to find a way to ship into the US and Canada. To do so, she is getting assistance from the USAID-funded Accelerating Sustainable Agriculture Program (ASAP), which aims to “help Afghanistan develop a dynamic agriculture system capable of adapting to market forces,” to help her navigate the complex process of exporting food internationally. Mariam acquired her solar panels through another development project run by Creative Associates. She took a training from BPeace (The Business Council for Peace), who also helped her design a logo and package for her company and provided her with technical assistance as she got started. To further help her access foreign markets, she’s registered the company with the Afghan Ministry of Commerce, the Export Promotion Agency, and the Afghan Chamber of Commerce. She’s listed in Peace Dividend Trust’s directory of Afghan businesses. She was able to go on a tour to the United States sponsored by BPeace to view factories there that process fruits and nuts, to get new ideas. In Maine, she discovered almond butter and was floored: “This could be something we can have in Afghanistan! It’s delicious. I want to establish this product line.”
The story of the growth of Afghan Pride is embedded in a maze of entrepreneurial opportunities that have cropped up among the many development actors on the ground, to help Afghan businesses get their foot in the door. Mariam is a prime example of someone who has been able to use the momentum to her advantage. The programs have not been mere lip service—they’ve truly worked for her.
And Mariam is unrelentingly optimistic about the future. I asked her about all the usual demons that Afghan women contend with: patriarchy, insecurity, the lack of rule of law, corruption. One by one, she dismisses them and insists, things are good:
Security is always something on our minds, but we’re used to this! I’m able to travel to all regions of the country, north, south, I am not afraid of any enemies. I want to unite with women all over the country and provide opportunities for rural women, to be out of their home or compound and join in social activities. Women are part of the community too. If they are not working, if they are trapped in home, it means half the body is not working.
I just want to keep providing opportunities for women. When I first started my business, it was only an idea. Now I built it, and it’s expanding, and I support myself, as well as other women. It’s a good picture I have of the future. If Afghan women want to expand and develop their skills, they can do this, they don’t need to be afraid. The challenges are less. Other countries have also gone through these changes.
But it can take a past marred by struggle and loss to make the present seem all the brighter. Mariam’s entrepreneurship is feeding hundreds of families and has given women farmers some ownership over their lives. But she didn’t go into business initially to help other women. She just wanted her kids to go to school.
Mariam was trained as an educator. But when the Taliban captured Kabul and closed down all girls’ schools, she was out of a job. Unemployed, she stayed at home. She had never even owned a burqa before, an item she says she utterly loathed. She would borrow her mother-in-law’s burqa when she needed to go out.
But one day her mother-in-law became ill and Mariam needed to take her to the doctor. There was only the one burqa between the two of them, and Mariam’s mother-in-law wore it. Mariam wore a large chador. The two women were stopped by the Taliban, who violently grabbed Mariam and proceeded to beat her in the street. Recalling the episode, she says, “at that point I decided to leave the land I came from.”
The Sadat family packed up and moved over the border to Pakistan, like thousands of other families had already done. With four small children, the family found themselves destitute. Most Afghans in their neighbourhood were working in the grueling carpet industry. Entire families worked long hours to eek out a subsistence living, including kids. Mariam’s husband, who held a Master’s degree in economics from Bulgaria, went to Delhi where he worked in construction and earned 100 rupees a day, or about $2.00. His earnings couldn’t stretch far enough to support the family and as the situation became more desperate, Mariam came face to face with the prospect of putting her kids to work in the carpet making industry: “I thought, what should I do? If I put my children to work in the carpet factories, they can’t go to school and what kind of future would they have?”
She couldn’t bare the idea and she gave up on the prospect of holding out for a teaching job. After a long search, Mariam, who holds a Master’s in Education, got a job working as a labourer in a Pakistani home. The work was grinding and humiliating. But her kids stayed in school.
The time passed, and she eventually landed a job in a school for Afghan refugees in Atak, Pakistan. She moved on to become the school principal, while she also started another school in her home after-hours, teaching refugee children.
She returned to Afghanistan in 2004 to find the family’s home destroyed. She rented a house in Kabul, but prices had skyrocketed and everything was expensive. Mariam had had enough of living in poverty and worrying about how to feed her kids and keep them in school. She wanted to earn a good living, to not be a constant struggle for survival. She decided to give up teaching and go into the private sector.
And yet her skills as an educator have still managed to seep their way into her role as an entrepreneur. Her employees receive valuable training, and she’s now planning to introduce literacy and other classes at the production sites for the women. But perhaps her most valued achievement is that her kids continued their education. The oldest has graduated, and the others are earning stellar grades. They’re polite kids; bright and confident, and like their mother, always smiling.
Mariam’s plans for the future are vast and ambitious, and her workdays are still long like they were in Pakistan. Only now, her hard work is fulfilling, and of her own design.
Her two daughters sitting next to her, she squeezes each of them close and says, “Now I am very free.”
Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.