Afghan women processing saffron

Women businesses are at risk as second wave of Covid-19 predicted to arrive

In March 2020, many small businesses in Afghanistan went through a difficult time as the government imposed lockdown on major cities to prevent further outbreak of Covid-19. Many including teachers, short term contractors, shopkeepers and daily wage workers lost their sources of income and some small business went bankrupt.     

In this story, Etilaat-e-Roz reporters, Abuzar Maleknezhad and Abdul Wahid Haidari have talked to six women entrepreneurs in Kabul, Herat, and Bamyan, whose businesses have either collapsed or are at risk of collapse.

Prior to outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, Shafiqa Ataei, a business woman in Herat, bought 500 kg saffron from farmers but as the Covid-19 disease broke out in the country and major Afghan cities were placed under a lockdown, her small entrepreneurship lost contracts of exporting saffron to China and UAE as result of she went in debt worth 400,000 afghanis.

Before the outbreak of coronavirus, Shafiqa would sell per Kg saffron in 75,000 or 80,000 afghanis but after the pandemic hit the country, price of a kg saffron collapsed to 40,000 afghanis. Nearly 100 women who were working for Shafiqa’s export company lost their jobs.

Ms. Ataei, who is a high school graduate, created job opportunity for more than 100 women. The government did nothing for women enterprises when it comes to marketing and most business women would travel to Turkey and UAE on their own to market their products, she says. “Cultivation of saffron is halal and it is a replacement for poppy cultivation. This needs to be promoted, [we need] to encourage farmers to continue cultivating [saffron],” says Shafiqa.

Though Ms. Ataei has gone through a hard financial depression, she has not given up hope and tries to buy saffron from farmers just to keep them working.

A lucrative agriculture product, saffron cultivation is new in Afghanistan. A number of Afghan refugees, who were living in Iran, brought saffron to Ghorian district of Herat after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. During the Taliban rule, poppy cultivation was the most profitable product.

Saffron cultivation increased gradually and as time passed more farmers in Ghorian and Pashtun Zarghon districts of Herat began to cultivate saffron—seeking a good alternate to poppy cultivation.

Working for some years in saffron field—picking and processing—, in 2017 Ms. Ataei founded an export company trade-named as Pashtun Zarghon Women Saffron Grower and employed more than 450 women.  “If a man is able to process one kilogram saffron per day, a woman is able to process five kilograms per day,” she says.

As per contract between farmers and sellers, payment is paid in two stages—with 50 percent is paid to farmers after saffron were collected and the remaining amount is paid after the product is sold.

On June 27, 2019, Zahra Arefian sold her car and jewelry to open her business—a restaurant in the capital Kabul. She hired twelve women and three men guards at her restaurant. “I thought of hiring mostly women who can have an income and be financially independent,” says Zahra. She tried to brand her restaurant, Darbar-e-Shahmama, as a local trademark with home-made food—decorating restaurant setup in traditional fashion. “Customers of this restaurant named the place Bamyan and they would visit the restaurant whenever they felt tired,” Zahra says.

Ms. Zahra, as now she says, spent almost a year to complete interior design of her restaurant which cost four million afghanis.

“The outbreak of Covid-19 did not allow me to open my restaurant. I talked to landlord. He was convinced, [and agreed] to receive the rent with some delays,” Zahra said.

But the landlord forced Zahra to close her business as she could not pay the rent of a year on time. She lost her asset and business and became indebted worth of two million afghanis.

Maryam and Nafas Gul are two women entrepreneurs whose businesses were hit by Covid-19 lockdown.

In 2017, Nafas Gul Jami, opened a small business—producing tomato paste, pickle and dairy food product in the western Herat province. Her business mission was focused on women empowerment and exporting good-quality products from Afghanistan to neighboring countries.

Before the lockdown period, as Ms. Jami now says, she would sell 500 to 600 kg products to Herat market on daily basis. “People from different sectors including farmers, shopkeepers, and those who would work in factories to process and produce products, were benefiting from our business. We all were happy to contribute to our country’s development,” says Nafas Gul.

The outbreak of Covid-19 hit Ms. Jami’s business hard and a large quantity of raw materials were rotten during lockdown period. “It is not only the matter of rent, I am indebted to farmers and [I have bought] raw materials from them. Every day, I receive calls from shopkeepers who ask to pay their dues. I am afraid of being sued these days,” she says.

Though the situation is uncertain for many entrepreneurs, Nafas Gul has recently resumed her work but this time hired only eight employees. “I cannot take loans from bank because I cannot pay its profit. If the government supports me, I will be able to restart my company, otherwise, I have to think of dealing with the people whom I am indebted to,” says Nafas Gul.

Maryam, who initiated her business ten years ago, closed down her company after she befell under debt worth of 80,000 USD. “[We] have no money left to pay the rent and salaries of our employees,” she says.

In 2010, Jami Ahmadi founded her business. “I believe that the value of country’s agricultural products should grow and we should contribute to improve economic situation,” says Ms. Ahmadi.

The most painful effect of Covid-19, Ms. Ahmadi says, was a financial burden workers were carrying. “My employees were in a bad financial condition, to an extent that some of them did not have food to eat. I went to several places where I could at least get government-sponsored grants for my employees, but I was only able to get food for three months from a number of [them].”

“My family members are concerned. They tell me ironically that in this country, men cannot manage businesses, leaving women aside,” she says.

Despite challenges, she has not given up. She expects to flourish her business again which would be possible only by support of the government.

Lockdown imposed by outbreak of Covid-19 forced an active Bamyan woman to close her company and training center. In 2004, Uzra Laali, left Quetta, Pakistan for her home country—seeking opportunities.

In 2007, she founded a small handicraft workshop in the central Bamyan province. She says that working with farmers who did not believe in industrial works was tedious and required lots of perseverance.

“In 2007, getting 4,000 afghanis as loans, I started my business. Although everything seemed tough, I was not disappointed and did not give up,” says Uzra.

At first, only four women trusted Uzra and decided to cooperate with her, but slowly the number her trustees reached 50. “All these women started earning through their handicrafts,” says Uzra.

As her business prospered, Uzra earned title of the “most active lady” of Bamyan which was awarded to her by Civil Society and Human Rights Network.

“At the Salsal factory, overall 60 women were hired; 20 were busy sewing clothes, 20 making bags, and 20 making shoes. We started selling a complete set to our customers which were hand-made. Our business was not limited to Bamyan only, it was also in Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad which had good results, but the outbreak of coronavirus changed everything [for bad],” says Uzra.

“I would make a good earning in previous years during potato blossom festival and Dambura festival, but this year none of these festivals happened,” says Uzra. She took 250,000 afghanis loans from banks to pay salaries of her employees but still struggles to pay the salary of her 10 remained employees.

Supported by Agha Khan Foundation, just recently Uzra has restarted her business—training 42 women in Shibar, Waras, and Punjab districts so that they may get job.

Samira Sadat, founder of Saaf Sotra, a cleaning service, says her business faced a hard time as the city was placed under lockdown. “With the outbreak of coronavirus, I temporarily closed my business,” she says.

The temporary closure of Saaf Sutra, which was a source of income for many women, made things tough for many families. “The employees were all women, who are the breadwinners of their families. These employees lost their sole earning source,” she says.

Like many, Ms. Samira is worried about the second wave of coronavirus. “In Afghanistan, neither government nor private organizations are supportive. In the toughest situations, I was alone and searching for solutions,” says Samira.

In late 2019, Covid-19 pandemic hit Wuhan, China, and later it spread around the globe. The outbreak of Covid-19 has had devastating effects on economy of poor countries including Afghanistan.

The Ministry of Economy in Afghanistan predicted that during the outbreak, Afghanistan’s economic growth decreased by three percent and the level of poverty increased by seven percent. However, according to the World Bank, Afghanistan’s economic growth decreased by 5.5 percent.

According to the Women Chamber of Commerce and Investment in Afghanistan, 83 percent of more than 2,000 women stopped their businesses in the first three months of quarantine and coronavirus outbreak, with unemployment rate increasing day by day.