As Afghan-U.S. relations continue to deteriorate, it's hard to imagine that the two nations can find political common ground. But the language of business is a common one. Stronger business (coupled with innovation) is a powerful driver for peace.
For Afghanistan, female entrepreneurs may be critical to drive this peaceful future. In a study recently conducted by the Peace Dividend Trust (PDT), which works with Afghan entrepreneurs to match them to local market opportunities, out of the 7,000 Afghan companies in its national database only 242 are owned by women. However, three to five new women-owned ventures join its registry each month. According to PDT's Executive Director, Scott Gilmore, "The untold story in Afghanistan is the rise of female entrepreneurs. They are turning into a powerful force for growth and stability."
But small business owners — especially women — are vulnerable in war-torn Afghanistan, and need nonprofits and other outside organizations to help them survive and thrive. For example, the Business Council for Peace (Bpeace) consults "Fast Runners," or high-potential small-business owners in sectors ripe for growth in not only Afghanistan, but also Rwanda and El Salvador.
The program selects female entrepreneurs with the intuitive business sense to expand and create employment for other Afghans. "Hit-and-run training and generic mentoring don't do much in the long run to increase Afghan business confidence and capacity," says Bpeace CEO Toni Maloney, "Our approach mimics a consulting firm. We deploy volunteer experts to provide what they are best at."
For example, Cynthia Fisher, a Bpeace member and VP of Marketing & Quality Assurance at Bar Harbor Foods, helped four female Afghan food processors calculate better pricing for their jarred chutneys, bottled mint water, dried raisins, and tomato paste. And a New York-based design firm provided a new logo and brand packaging for one of the dried fruit exporters. Another part of the program was to provide a framework for these Afghan women to draw upon each other for problem solving. Today their individual businesses employ 307 other Afghan women.
Also the U.S. Department of State has helped the organization by bringing more than 40 Afghans, most of them women, to the U.S. to apprentice at firms like Microsoft. Another seven women and seven men will be visiting the U.S. this April to learn from host companies. The Afghan women will be apprenticing at firms that include IT and software development, advertising agencies, and furniture manufacturers.
According to author and journalist Gayle Lemmon, "Businesswomen in Afghanistan are supporting not just their families, but their communities. And so many I have interviewed over the years have now become homegrown role models for their families and their neighbors."
Nonprofits like Bpeace and Peace Dividend Trust are at the forefront of demonstrating the positive outcomes business can produce in conflict-affected communities like Afghanistan. As Maloney says, "Jobs are the bridge to everything. A family's ability to feed their children, send them to school, and propel their community up the path to peace and prosperity. It's business that builds that bridge."
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 3/19/2012.
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