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Food Entrepreneur Is A New Breed Of Afghan Business Owner


MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne has been in Kabul, a place she knows well. It's her ninth trip to Afghanistan since 2001. This time, she's reporting on a new generation in Afghanistan: young people born after the Soviet invasion, which set in motion more than three decades of conflict. These young Afghans will be the ones shaping their country after 2014. That's when U.S. and Allied combat operations are set to end and foreign aid and support is expected to dwindle. This morning, Renee introduces us to a young entrepreneur struggling to make a go of her small startup in the food business.


Afghanistan is a nation of small businesses. Until a few years ago, though, it was the rare business that was owned by a woman - nearly all hairdressers, catering to weddings. So you could say that Shilla Qiyam is a new breed, a product of new opportunities and expectations. At 27 years old, she's the proud maker of a line of foodstuffs called Afghan Zeenat, or Beauty and Grace. The label offers jars and bottles of mixed pickles honey and two kinds of chutney. I met up with her at her business on the edge of Kabul in a production area crowded with vats of ingredients being pickled.

I'm looking at two very large red barrels with lids, one filled with green chutney, the other filled with red chutney?

SHILLA QIYAM: Yeah. Green tomato, green chili, red tomato, red chili, garlic.

MONTAGNE: It has a wonderful fragrance. It's like I feel - I'm taking it in through my nose.


MONTAGNE: Shilla Qiyam speaks with genuine passion about her products. The mixed pickles, carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers, are flavored with mustard seed, no vinegar - healthier, she believes, and a big selling point with customers. And the honey? It's very rare, made by bees that feed on a plant that blooms briefly in the spring. Qiyam says her company stands behind every jar sold. If a customer has a problem with any of their products, she says, they will take it back and replace it, which is quite something, since the process of packaging the products is arduous. Shilla Qiyam walks me out to a tiny, concrete room equipped with a portable gas stove and a vintage clothes iron.

There's an iron on top of the stove. What's that for?

QIYAM: We use this instead of press machine.

MONTAGNE: So you take that hot iron - it's a very old-fashioned iron. So you'll heat it up on the flames, right, of the stove? And then you use that hot iron to press tin foil into the top of your plastic jar.

QIYAM: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: So, if you had a presser, that would be a machine that would...

QIYAM: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...do it for you?

QIYAM: If we have press machine, we can press 100 bottle in 10 minutes or 20 minutes.

MONTAGNE: So that would be a good thing to get.

QIYAM: Yeah, or else we waste our time.

MONTAGNE: Much as it would avoid wasting their time, a press machine is an improvement that will have to wait. Qiyam says it would cost about $600 - more than her original stake in the business. Back in 2010, she and a friend started the label Afghan Zeenat by pooling their money, about $450 each, savings from working two years as interpreters on a project sponsored by the Indian Embassy. That project taught young women about business and what businesses were the most promising. As she translated, it struck Shilla Qiyam that she could open a business, a food business, something she never expected to do as a literature major at Kabul University. Her family - her mother and brother - were not pleased. They predicted she would run into all kinds of trouble, given how unusual it is for men and boys to see working women.

QIYAM: Some people will harass you, especially boys. And some people that come from province, they are not happy that woman work like this. But despite we struggle with our family, I didn't study at school and university to stay at home. I studied to work outside home and work for people, work for our society.

MONTAGNE: The women who produce Afghan Zeenat also spoke of how important it is for them to work and to be part of the larger world. Twenty-two-year-old Zachia Mohamadi had to face down a family who were against her going to work, and especially worried about her working at the very job Zachia loves best: a sales rep. And as sales rep, she spends two days a week cultivating new customers.

When you started out, how hard was it for you to walk into a shop or stall and present your product as a woman?

ZACHIA MOHAMADI: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: In the past, people would treat us very poorly, she says, when we took our products to their shops. It just didn't make sense to the shopkeepers: a woman selling. And some would say nasty things. But over time, the men saw how fine our products are. And now they treat us well and with a lot of respect, and especially because we're helping to support our families.

MOHAMADI: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: At the moment, owner Shilla Qiyam's biggest challenge is keeping up with demand for her chutneys and mixed pickles, given that she has a serious lack of capital. But she does have dreams of growing her business and opening up a real factory.

QIYAM: I'm waiting for after 2014, and after 2014, I have planned to make a small factory and also import some machinery to do our work better.

MONTAGNE: And where is the money going to come from for this?

QIYAM: After 2014, I will take loan, because the situation will clear for us.

MONTAGNE: Shilla Qiyam says she would take out a bank loan today. It's her family holding her back. Like everywhere else in the world, people don't want to take out a loan in uncertain times. It's known as a confidence gap. In Afghanistan, next year will bring a presidential election and possibly changes in government policies, plus international combat troops will be gone, which could affect security. Either way, the economic situation should indeed be clearer, which is why Shilla Qiyam is holding off expanding and hiring - reluctantly.

QIYAM: I'm very optimist for after 2014, because 10 years ago, woman were not able to work outside of home, especially during the Taliban regime. And right now, we can see lots of the women, that they have their own business. And also, we can see lots of change. And then after 2014, maybe Afghanistan will have a bright future.

MONTAGNE: Shilla Qiyam is owner of a company that puts out the label Afghan Zeenat: mixed pickles, honey and chutney in Kabul, Afghanistan.


GREENE: Now, as Renee just mentioned, the future of Afghanistan's economy is precarious, as international combat forces officially withdraw from the country. But speaking on ABC News yesterday, the former commander of the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen, said an international military presence, some kind of presence in the country will be necessary for a long time. He also said some U.S. forces will continue to help train Afghan troops in their fight against the Taliban. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.