UNDP Report Reveals the Struggle and Resilience of Women Entrepreneurs in Afghanistan

April 16, 2024

Entrepreneurship has surfaced as a lifeline for women and their families. The survey shows that 80% of women-led enterprises rely on their business revenues as their primary source of income. Women-run businesses also create much-needed job opportunities for other women.

Photo Credit: UNDP Afghanistan

New York and Kabul, 17 April 2024 - Despite facing formidable challenges, women-owned and -led businesses in Afghanistan continue to demonstrate remarkable resilience, serving as vital pillars of economic stability and hope amidst adversity. These insights emerge from a comprehensive report titled "Listening to Women Entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. Their Struggle and Resilience," released today by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 

The report brings together insights from various data collection methods conducted over the last three years. It includes data from in-depth interviews in 2022, focus group discussions in 2023, and a 2024 quantitative survey with responses from more than 3,100 women, providing one of the most detailed views into the changing circumstances of women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan.

The research reveals that Afghanistan's women entrepreneurs face a range of hurdles and high costs of doing business. Deepened discrimination and operational constraints, coupled with a severely weakened financial system, has forced 41% of the over 3,000 women surveyed into debt, of whom only 5% had received loans via banks or microfinance institutions. Movement restrictions, with 73% reporting being unable to travel even to local markets without a mahram (male escorting family member), further exacerbate the challenges.

In Afghanistan, where a total 15.8 million people are food insecure and the employment rate for working age female members of households has halved to 6% over the past year, women are finding ways to tackle the challenges. Entrepreneurship has surfaced as a lifeline for women and their families. The survey shows that 80% of women-led enterprises rely on their business revenues as their primary source of income. Women-run businesses also create much-needed job opportunities for other women. 

“Women entrepreneurs have demonstrated incredible grit, boldness, and resourcefulness under the most dire of conditions,” said Kanni Wignaraja, UNDP’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. “With a strategic focus on their needs, UNDP and its international and national NGO partners have supported 75,000 micro and small businesses, which together have created employment opportunities for more than 900,000 persons who in turn provide support to their families. We estimate that more than 4.5 million Afghans have benefited – all for an average of US$42 per month per business, a remarkably small price tag compared to overall impact.”

UNDP supports women entrepreneurs through integrated responses that combine direct access to finance with a range of business support services including training in financial literacy and business management, digitalization of business operations and payments, marketing and product development, cash-for work, mental health, and support to access national and international markets.  

"Women have long been the driving force behind the welfare of households in Afghanistan and play a crucial role in sustaining local economies," said Stephen Rodriques, UNDP Resident Representative in Afghanistan. “UNDP continues to amplify the voice of these women, highlighting their contributions and the positive ripple effects of investing in their potential. Their courage and resilience in overcoming the odds tell a compelling story of fortitude and hope. They need international support, and this report provides additional insights on how we can support them. The future of Afghanistan depends on them.”

Wignaraja, who visited Afghanistan recently and had the chance to meet some of the entrepreneurs participating in the study, recalled: “From what I've witnessed firsthand, community-focused international aid is absolutely critical for positive transformation. I am truly thankful to donors like the Government of Japan, the European Union, and others who believe in the mission and support our work on the ground. Their contributions directly help strengthen communities and empower women. With additional support, we can expand our reach across Afghanistan to improve prospects for these dynamic entrepreneurs.” 

Download the report.

Other findings:

  • Donor support and higher market demand are increasing business opportunities. Some 66% of women reported growth in their businesses over the past year. Donor assistance is the leading factor (60%), followed by increased demand (44%), higher quality of products (43%), and lower prices (28%). 
  • When asked about the constraints of operating a business as a woman, 32% of women-led MSMEs believed gender discrimination presented challenges in market access for their businesses, with 28% citing difficulties in procuring supplies and 19% citing challenges in securing both formal and informal loans.
  • Sources for women-led businesses loans included family (61%), friends (45%), loans from other businesses (21%), formal banks (5%) or remittances from abroad (5%), microfinance institutions (2%), community savings groups (2%), and hawalas (0.31%). 
  • Business is a path for economic survival and autonomy, as 60% of the women surveyed live in women-headed households. 

About the study

The study by UNDP, through its Istanbul International Centre for Private Sector in Development in collaboration with REACH - a humanitarian initiative providing granular data, timely information and in-depth analysis from contexts of crisis, disaster and displacement- and the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), is based on extensive research with women entrepreneurs including 3,100 quantitative interviews, focus group discussions with over 100 participants, and dozens of in-depth individual interviews. It is one of the largest and most comprehensive studies to date on the economic situation of women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. 

Media contacts 

For more information or to request an interview, contact: 

In New York City: raul.de.mora@undp.org (+1 631 464 86 17)

In Bangkok: cedric.monteiro@undp.org (+66 2 304 9100)