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Small Enterprises Sustain Traditional Crafts and Families

April 2, 2013


A carpet and silk weaving centre located in the historic Herat Citadel.

Graham Crouch/World Bank

  • Small and medium enterprises, run by women, are supporting families as well as keeping traditional crafts alive in Herat, Afghanistan.
  • These businesses have benefited from the Ministry of Rural, Rehabilitation and Development’s Afghanistan Rural Enterprise Development Project which is helping the rural poor to pursue training and jobs outside the agricultural sector.
  • The project, supported by the World Bank and ARTF, provides technical advice, facilitation and seed capital to local entrepreneurs so as to improve their access to assets, credit and market linkages.

HERAT, Afghanistan – With hands that fly and tie, Shirin Waziri repeats movements made for centuries by the carpet-weavers who worked in the shadow of Herat’s ancient citadel.

“This is our history, our tradition,” says Waziri, not pausing as her razor-sharp sickle trims each knot. “We must keep it going, because everyone knows Afghanistan’s carpets are best in the world, and Herat’s are the ‘best of the best’.”

Still, Waziri, 50, worries about the time she’s lost. She first learned her craft at age seven, but almost four decades of war followed, with harsh times, including the Taliban regime. Many families, such as Waziri’s, were forced to flee the country and leave their looms and other assets behind.

Recently many returned, hoping to rebuild their lives, but it’s been an uphill struggle for some like Waziri. Unmarried, she came back to Herat with her elderly mother and no other family support. She tried weaving again but couldn’t earn enough. Then two years ago, she joined hundreds of others getting small business assistance from the Afghanistan Rural Enterprise Development Program (AREDP) in Herat province.

Supported by the World Bank and the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), the Ministry of Rural, Rehabilitation and Development’s program helps the rural poor pursue training and jobs outside of agricultural work. About 80 percent of Afghanistan’s population live in rural areas and is generally dependent on farming and livestock. But the AREDP encourages small business development, and offers advice on access to markets, business planning, obtaining bank loans and other financial expertise.

Opportunities for women

Opportunities for rural women are particularly emphasized. It was AREDP assistance that led Waziri and other weavers to set up shop in the ancient arcade that circles Herat’s great citadel.

Called Qala Ikhtyaruddin, the citadel was first fortified by Alexander the Great in 300 BC after he captured the city at an important juncture in the Silk Road between Persia and Asia. Recently restored, the fort’s 16-meter-high walls, parapets and towers dominate the city skyline. And in the citadel’s arcade, art houses, calligraphers, and others ply historic trades. In one tiny cubicle, a camel tethered to a massive stone mortar and pestle grinds sesame seed oil in the ancient way.

In Waziri’s tiny studio, four looms are set up. Frequently, the women are moved by their historic surroundings, she says. “I really feel proud now. I am doing the work of my ancestors again, and I am able to support my old, sick mother,” says Waziri.

" There is no doubt that people in this country have the capacity and local resources to be independent. All they need is a little technical expertise. "

Mohammad Asef Nikzad

AREDP manager, Herat province

At another loom, 26-year-old Sughra Ghulam weaves green silk into a scarf as her hands and feet power the loud clacking pedals and beams. “It’s very important to keep this tradition alive,” she explains. “Doing this, we can make food for ourselves and for the pride of our family.”

Sughra and her sister, Nazanin, 19, help support sx people, including their mother. Their father left them during their exile.

Now, the women’s collective sells ladies’ scarves, men’s ties, small carpets and handbags to tourists who visit the citadel. Typically, they earn about 50 Afghanis (about $1) a meter for their weaving, or more depending on the design.

Along with this business, they also travel between outlying villages teaching other women to weave, says Nazanin. The training sessions allow them a brief escape from the restrictive world faced by many women in conservative families, she says.

“We like meeting and working with other ladies,” says Nazanin. “The problem is that a lot of women are not usually allowed out to work like this. But it’s really important that we do this, so people can improve and benefit our country.”

Focus on self sufficiency

Mohammad Asef Nikzad, AREDP provincial manager, says his office currently oversees about 50 rural Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) groups like the women’s weaving operation. Many are located outside Herat city, and include small food processing businesses that produce pickles, tomato paste and vinegar. A dairy, and a flower seed outfit are also getting assistance, he says.

These SMEs generally employ about 10 people, and receive program help with issues such as expanding markets, or improving packaging and labeling, says Nikzad.

“After the conflict in this country, there was an urgent need to solve people’s problems in the short term with many emergency programs,” he says, “but now we are focusing on projects that can make people self-sufficient, not dependent.

“There is no doubt that people in this country have the capacity and local resources to be independent. All they need is a little technical expertise.”