Meet the women entrepreneurs of Herat

In Herat, Western Afghanistan, women entrepreneurs participated in the women-only market days, funded by the European Union and implemented through UNDP’s flagship programme, ABADEI. These are their stories.

November 30, 2022

Zahar Alizada explaining her product to one of her costumers in Herat, Afghanistan

Haroon Hamdard/ UNDP Afghanistan

Zahra Alizadeh runs a clothing business. Needles, thread, and fabric are constantly on her mind. Immediately after finishing school at 18, Zahra got married. For a while, she was content with just selling the jewelry she made at home, but two years later, she realized that she wanted to do something more ambitious which would also support the household expenses.

"With the support of my husband and the money I got from selling my jewelry, I bought fabric,” she remembers. “I worked day and night to make hats, shawls, and other decorative items for sale. I worked so hard, my health even began to suffer. Soon it was clear I could not handle all the orders alone. I was the community sensation! The business grew so much that I thought of outsourcing parts of the embroidery work to other women.”

Zahra quickly became the proud centre of a business network that involved 120 women, selling her products as far as neighboring Iran. But then her business was hit with two hammer blows: first the COVID-19 pandemic, and then the sudden takeover of the Afghanistan government by the Taliban in August 2021. Zahra’s pride in her business quickly turned to sadness and despair.

"With Covid and the political change, business declined dramatically. I no longer received enough orders to pay the workers’ salaries. Then things got so bad that I had difficulty making ends meet. I was depressed and hopeless."

But Zahra didn’t give up. She remained at her workstation in the corner of her room and continued to sew and sew, waiting for the tides to turn. At this low point in her life, Future Generation Afghanistan (FGA), one of UNDP Afghanistan’s partner organizations, visited Zahra to offer a chance to participate in their women-only market days. This was a UNDP programme supported by the European Union to provide safe spaces for women entrepreneurs to sell their goods. 1,532 female-led businesses in Herat and neighbouring districts have been selected so far to participate in the activity.

Zahra knew immediately that this was her chance. "I was depressed for a long time over what I had lost, but by participating in this women-only market, I feel so much better. Seeing other entrepreneurs, hearing their stories, seeing their products and advertising, and of course, through my good sales. I am thrilled and hopeful for the future. Before attending the market, I used to earn around 2,000 Afghanis (US$22) per day, but in just the last few days, my sales have gone up to 5,000 Afghanis ($56).”

Nabila with her students posing to the camera in Herat, Afghanistan

Haroon Hamdard/UNDP Afghanistan

Life with Added Colour

The first things you notice when you enter Nagar Gallery in Herat are the colorful paintings hanging on the wall. Images that evoke sadness despite their vibrancy: a ruined historic building, a bird with a broken beak, and a fish in captivity. Not far away, a young woman is hovering over her canvas with a paintbrush and palette.  This is Nabila, a young widow, just 25 years old.

"I paint for two reasons,” she says. “Firstly, to support myself and my two children, “and secondly, to send a message about the rights of women and children in Afghanistan. Since August last year, I haven’t traveled anywhere in fear of what I will see."

Nabila got married when she was just 15 years old. Four years ago, her husband was killed during an attack, another victim of Afghanistan’s 20-year war. As she had a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, Nabila used to make ends meet by painting and teaching others to paint. Her work sold well, and she always had many students. But since the change of regime in 2021, her business started to decline.

Nabila was one of the entrepreneurs invited to participate in the women-only market days as part of UNDP’s ABADEI programme. For Nabila the market was a perfect chance for women to network, share stories and start collaborations that benefit each other and their communities.

"The market days gave me much positive energy,” she says. “I met up with many other women, which is always good publicity. I made some sales and took some orders. It has given a boost to my work and my life. The women-only markets are good for the business and our souls. I wish it wasn’t a temporary thing, but that it continued”

Zahra Hussainzada sewing with love in women entrepreneurs exhibition in women-only market day

Haroon Hamdard/UNDP Afghanistan

Sewing with Love

"When people look at me, they are surprised and ask how I do this,” says Zahra. “I answer with a smile and say that disability is not a limitation; my legs may not work, but I thank God that my hands are healthy, and I sew with love."

Zahra is a 29-year-old entrepreneur. Her apprenticeship started early, when she was seven years old, as the first of eight children, helping her mother’s handicraft business, which helped provide for the family.

"My father was a labourer, but he did not make enough money to support the family. My mother taught me needlework and knitting, which I quickly learned. Now I can make shirts, shawls, trousers, jackets, and more.”

Zahra loves her craft so much that she keeps sewing even as she tends her stall in the corner of the exhibition hall where the women-only market is held. Her colourful pieces and her winning smile help her to get customers. 

"After the political change in Afghanistan, I didn't leave the house much out of fear and depression. Buying and selling in the markets stopped altogether, and I struggled to pay my bills. However, this women-only market is giving me hope to carry on. I have found new friends, got to know different crafts, the sales have been great, and this should keep me comfortable for the next few months.” 

Last January, UNDP Afghanistan and European Union (EU) signed an agreement supporting women-led small and mid-sized enterprises, in line with the flagship ABADEI programme. Under the agreement, some US$6.4M in grants will be provided to 3,000 women-led businesses, 100 women’s small and mid-sized enterprises, and 20 women’s business associations. Two hundred women-only market days will organize safe spaces for women entrepreneurs to sell their products, with 23,400 direct beneficiaries. The project focuses on the Western Afghanistan region of Herat, Farah, and Badghis provinces.

The EU has been a significant partner for humanitarian and development activities in Afghanistan for many years. UNDP Afghanistan and the EU priority areas of intervention are peace, stability and democracy, sustainable growth, jobs, and essential social services. These priorities are manifested in UNDP’s flagship programme, ABADEI, which supports inclusive, sustainable, private sector-led economic growth, notably by unlocking the potential of medium and small medium enterprises, jobs creation through rural enterprises, and leveraging private capital and investments with women as the leading agents of change.