What It’s Like to be a Female Entrepreneur in Afghanistan Today

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The country generally known for conflict and violence is challenging its narrative.

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Being a budding entrepreneur is difficult enough, but imagine the obstacles standing in the way of you and your start-up dream included legitimate fears for your security? What if the distinct lack of support and resources thwarted your vision before it could really take hold? This is the reality for many would-be entrepreneurs operating out of Afghanistan right now, a country steeped in conflict and unrest.

Enter Shetab Afghanistan, a centre for business and social innovation co-founded by Ajmal Paiman and Azadeh Tajdar 15 years after US troops invaded Afghanistan. Together, Ajmal and Azadeh are challenging the country’s current narrative by “enabling the next generation of Afghan entrepreneurs, social innovators and activists,” explains Azadeh. “We believe this community has the talent, drive and passion to develop and expand ventures that can impact on a large scale, solving daunting challenges in Afghanistan.”

Shetab – which means ‘accelerate’ in Persian – was recently launched but has been 10 years in the making. Despite their mixed backgrounds (Azadeh is Iranian born but raised in the Netherlands due to the Iran-Iraq war, while Ajmal’s family fled Afghanistan during the civil war and has since bounced around from Russia, Pakistan, the UK and the US) Azadeh and Ajmal’s paths crossed in Afghanistan over a decade ago while working on a USAID funded project to create an enabling environment for the entrepreneurship community.

After staying in touch, Azadeh and Ajmal continued to share what they had learnt while working alongside social innovators from all corners of the globe and would constantly question how they could translate this knowledge about social innovation and entrepreneurship into the Afghan context.

“You see, Afghanistan is so central in the region – and a stable, prosperous and wealthy Afghanistan is a metric for success across West and Central Asia,” Azadeh explains of her hopes that Shetab can help integrate values of social innovation for the entire region, starting by tackling the obstacles entrepreneurs currently face head-on in Afghanistan, a country boasting the fifth fastest growing urban population in the world.

“This community lacks organisational support, networks, resources and leadership skills to overcome many obstacles in order to develop and expand their ventures. That is where Shetab Afghanistan steps in,” says Azadeh, who notes that Shetab is the first real comprehensive program of its kind in the country.

Despite being ranked as one of the most oppressive countries for women and girls, Azadeh maintains that there is a nascent female-led start-up scene within Afghanistan. “It is a super-exciting time to be involved with the start-up scene in Afghanistan,” she continues, noting that the usual depictions of the country are warfare, opium and poverty. “Talk about change of narrative, right? You never hear or read about the start-up scene and the opportunities to connect with regional and international ecosystems. Despite the security challenges in the country, it has not stopped young entrepreneurs with creative and new ideas to startup their ventures.”

With the co-working incubator providing mentoring, acceleration services and access to both international and regional networks and resources to help shape would-be entrepreneurs’ ideas into viable ventures, Shetab is doing their best to help nurture this emerging talent – but they have their work cut out for them.

“Afghanistan has come a long way in creating safer work and learning environments so that families don’t feel anxious to sending their daughters or wives to work or to school. But more needs to be done to address the negative stereotypes against strong and educated women,” Azadeh maintains. “Second, the challenge is to better incentivise women who cannot find formal employment, to actually consider the entrepreneurship route – which is no different to other countries.”

As Azadeh points out, it all starts with challenging the narrative that’s become all too familiar. “Is Afghanistan among the highest ranked in gender-based violence in the world? 100 per cent. Has it always been the case? Of course not. Afghanistan has had many female figures in history that have fought against ‘invaders’,” she concludes, maintaining that strong female role models are imperative to inspiring the next generation. “Afghanistan today also has wonderful female entrepreneurs whose stories need to be told.”

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