Workshop to help Afghan economy thrive

Dubai course aims to help companies grow despite Taliban.

Left to right, Afghan entrepreneurs Masooma Habibi (cq), a Kabul-based electrical engineering company called Check Up owner, and Azimullahq Azimi (cq), an IT company owner from Mazar i-Sharif, work on solving a business challenge on Sunday afternoon, May 1, 2011, as they partake in a business-building workshop at the Dubai Women's College in Dubai. The three-day workshop, organized by B Peace, a non-profit network of business professional, hosted and instructed the 12 Afghan entrepreneurs at the DWC's campus. (Silvia Razgova / The National)
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DUBAI // Ask any small business owner how hard it is to get a new venture off the ground, and the answer is likely to be "extremely". Most, though, do not list the Taliban among their headaches.

For Masooma Habibi, the war in Afghanistan has made running her electrical engineering consultancy a constant trial. And business in Kabul will only pick up, she said, when two months go by without a Taliban attack.

"They are a threat to our businesses," she said at a workshop session in Dubai yesterday. "There are no jobs in the country and people go to them instead of building Afghanistan's economy."

She has found it tough, too, to win contracts for work against the foreign companies "who have all the money and power".

"We barely get any profit because we come last in line and as there are also no investors in Afghanistan due to a lack of security, our business really depends on the country's stability."

Ms Habibi was one of 12 Afghans who this weekend began the second phase of a three-year course at the Dubai Women's College intended to help develop their country's economy.

The new module, which runs until Wednesday, will provide the entrepreneurs with an insight on human resources, pricing and marketing, with lectures by American business experts and workshops by 12 DWC teachers. Originally due to be held in Kabul, it was moved to Dubai for security reasons.

On Wednesday, each member of the group will have five minutes to present a business plan to a panel of judges.

Haji Ekramuddin, the 31-year-old owner of a salt iodine processing company, said his country presented businesses with many hurdles.

"I invested a lot of money in my company but the country has serious issues with financial and marketing support," he said.

Soraya Omar, the country director of BPeace, the association that started the programme, said that in the absence of bank financing, Afghan entrepreneurs usually have to ask their relatives for loans or apply for grants from aid agencies.

"Exporting their products is also a problem," she added. "Afghanistan has no access to sea and transportation costs are high, so they can't have a good market overseas."

She also said road blocks in some areas prevented them from crossing borders to buy raw materials.

Ms Omar meets the group once a month in Afghanistan to discuss the issues they face.

Masooda Wahidi, 26, works for a ball company in Kabul.

"Soraya really helps us," she said. "This has taught me how to promote my product and attract new customers."

Khanaqa Niarzi, the 45-year-old owner of a jewellery shop in Kabul, is glad of the technical support the programme has given him.

"I have decided to start hiring more people once I go back to Afghanistan," he said. "I've learnt the strengths of my business and hope it will contribute to my country's development."

Toni Maloney, the chief executive of BPeace, said it gave the group hands-on training and valuable consulting. Just as importantly, though, "more jobs mean less violence".

"We want to help them expand to create jobs," she said, "because we believe it'll create peace."