Headlines about Afghanistan over the past decade have centered on military conflict and the fight against global terrorism. Too often lost in that rubble are stories of rebuilding and entrepreneurship empowered by groups like Turquoise Mountain, a nonprofit organization that in the past 10 years has restored more than 110 historic buildings, run vocational training for thousands and helped traditional Afghan artisans earn more than $5 million in sales for their jewelry and other wares.
Last week in Manhattan, Turquoise Mountain showcased and sold these Afghan goods as part of New York Fashion Week. Turquoise Mountain CEO Shoshana Stewart said the organization expects to work with more than 10,000 artisans over the next ten years, and stabilize the craft industry in Afghanistan.
“When we started working in 2006, there were only a handful of the last generation of masters left,” Stewart told Opportunity Lives. “With a few exceptions like carpet weaving, almost all production had stopped. If we manage to restart the craft industry and get it to the point where it doesn’t need us anymore I will be really proud of that. There are others working in the industry of course, and we’re all working together now to get the best of Afghan crafts out.”
Turquoise Mountain helps young entrepreneurs, like Khadija Seddiq (above), learn their craft and promote their work to a global market. | Photo: Turquoise Mountain
Within the next 10 years, Stewart said she hopes Turquoise Mountain becomes a major contributor to the Afghan economy and that Murad Khani, the old city neighborhood where Turquoise Mountain is located, will be one of the most important cultural attractions in Kabul.
“I want to focus on getting as many people as possible to come to the Old City and experience all of the aspects of Afghan culture that are there — architecture, craft, festivals, food, even the street pattern — both so that it will be protected and to really bridge the gap in memory and connection that so many of this younger generation of Afghans have because they grew up as refugees or displaced and moving around,” she said.
Stewart acknowledged she works in spite of Afghanistan’s economic and infrastructural obstacles, including an economy with a weak import-export balance in a landlocked country with no real transportation infrastructure.
“We are trying to reach a $50 billion global ethical sustainable goods industry which values handmade, unique and high quality, but shipping is just a huge issue,” she said. “It is getting better and we are beginning to work out the particular combinations of price point, weight and market for each craft that maximizes the unique resources of Afghanistan and minimizes the effect of obstacles.”
Jewelry is easiest, Stewart explains, because it is light and has high value. Woodwork is the hardest because of its weight, but “woodwork is also the best thing that Afghanistan does,” she said.
With a background in astrophysics, Stewart makes an unusual fit for her role. She said she doesn’t often rely on her astrophysics degree from Williams College, where she was an All-American oarswoman for four years, including as a three-time NCAA champion in rowing.
“My astrophysics degree is pretty far removed from Afghanistan!” Stewart said. “I think the most connection I noticed was when we were planning the water and sanitation system and had to look at flow rates and land gradient …I really came to Afghanistan because I wanted to be abroad again. I stayed because it’s the most fun job, with the most energetic people I’ve ever seen. Truly, one part water supply and building conservation, one part product design, one part primary health, one part education, and that changes every year.”
When she first began working with Turquoise Mountain, Stewart said she found that many traditional business principles were difficult to apply, but the better and further along her venture gets, “the more things fall in line with how conventional business works.” In part, she said, is because there are large upfront fixed costs for equipment that would be difficult to attract venture capital investors or banks to underwrite.
“I REALLY CAME TO AFGHANISTAN BECAUSE I WANTED TO BE ABROAD AGAIN. I STAYED BECAUSE IT’S THE MOST FUN JOB, WITH THE MOST ENERGETIC PEOPLE I’VE EVER SEEN,” – SHOSHANA STEWART
“You have no idea if the industry can make it, but you can see the uniqueness of the motifs, and the history of the craft and its place along the Silk Road, while the rest of the world is moving to machine made,” she said.
That’s where the development industry steps in, and needs to step in, to make the investment that businesses will not. “Now that we have gotten everyone to the skill levels of the past, if not higher in this case, and begun to succeed in export, it should look increasingly conventional,” Stewart said. “Our conversations internally and with buyers are now about minimum order quantities, and how price changes with volume. But there will always be an element of the unconventional that will be needed.”
Turquoise Mountain has spent 10 years focusing only on four crafts and addressing issues at every place in the value chain, from practical training to mentoring small businesses, quality control, logistics, marketing and sales.
“What we are doing now, supported very generously by the U.S. government, is to use what we know and the brand and customer base that we have built up, to work with artisans across the country,” Stewart said. “So we are now working in carpets, textiles and hand-blown glass, and with artisans much more widely.”
Stewart, an American who has also lived in the U.K., said her team has bonded like a family in their social venture in a country she has grown to call home.
“It’s difficult to explain why one falls in love with a country without embarrassing oneself,” she said. “It’s something about the unrelenting energy of Afghans that I love. It feels like a country of extremes; intensely romantic and honor-bound, simultaneously mixed with violence and corruption.”
“Afghans are immensely proud, and will tell you exactly why their country is great, and I love that,” Stewart added. “For the vast majority of our staff, we have been working together for eight to 10 years, and we’ve develop such a fun working relationship after that much time. We know each other’s families, we have worked through lots of disagreements and we have shared in a lot of important wins together.”
As a foreigner and a woman who started her adventure at a young age, Stewart said she earned local stakeholders’ trust by starting as a volunteer and doing many different jobs before assuming a leadership role.
“I have always been a bit of a worker bee, just charging through whatever was put in front of me,” she said. “By the time I was anyone’s boss I had proven that I was generally reliable and good at getting things done. Afghans are very respectful if you are respectful and loyal in return. I didn’t find that it was an issue to be a woman, but only because I was foreign. It’s still incredibly difficult to be an Afghan woman. I’ve watched the men in my office adjust to having more women professionals around, and they get more accepting every year but they were simply not accustomed to it.”
Turquoise Mountain has exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. and received an UNESCO award, acknowledgements that Stewart said encouraged her growing team.
“It’s always challenging to find the balance, but as we grow, I have to work very hard to maintain the sense that we are small and young, with the energy and close communication that comes with that,” she said. “I’m proud that we have a bit of a history of people coming on as volunteers and never leaving, or leaving and then returning. But in all seriousness, it’s hard work, but ultimately more rewarding than I can say and an amazing group of people to work with.”
Cross-posted from Opportunity Lives.
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others.