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Women, entrepreneurship & Afghanistan: A chat with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

We were lucky enough to have an interview with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana last week.

The following is our conversation about the limits of microfinance, business under the Taliban, tapping into entrepreneurial energy, and some of the challenges and opportunities facing female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan and the incredible role they can play in supporting families, communities, and economies.

If you prefer to listen to an audio version of the interview, you can download it here (time: 14:21).




PDT: The book that you wrote (“The Dressmaker of Khair Khana“) takes place in Afghanistan, and we’re curious: why Afghanistan?

GAYLE: There were two reasons: one is that women entrepreneurs in a conflict zone is a great economic story as well as a great human story and it’s so often underreported because people are used to seeing women as victims of war to be pitied rather than as survivors to be respected. The real challenge with that is that people don’t invest in victims, they invest in survivors, so part of why I wanted to write the story was to show that even at one of the worst times in one of the most difficult places in one of the toughest political situations in the world, women still manage to become breadwinners, during years in this case when they weren’t even supposed to be on the street. And then it was business that allowed them to do it.

PDT: And the story really is really centred around Kamila Sidiqi and her work; how did you first hear about her work and get to know her?

GAYLE: I met her when I was working on the 2005 Financial Times piece about women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan, and she at that point had just said no to a job with the international community because she wanted to chart her business. And she was really passionate about how entrepreneurship really was part of what was going to be the answer for tough societies that had really struggled with conflict and that it was really entrepreneurship that was going to create a community and an economy that would be there long after the foreigners went home.

And that was really what drew me, when I asked her how she knew all this she sort of looked at me, entirely natural, and said “well I had this great business under the Taliban that supported all these women in my neighbourhood, and that’s really what made me an entrepreneur.” And she worked very hard to stay within the rules and still ran a business.


PDT: When I hear you talking about her story and then also talking about female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan, one of the things that I’m always struck by what you say is how women are quick to say that women can’t be entrepreneurs.

GAYLE: Yeah, women don’t consider themselves entrepreneurs, right, they just consider themselves as women who happen to be in business. But, I mean, the work they’re doing has to start with entrepreneurial verve and vision and work, right? I mean, it’s managing risk, it’s finding opportunity, it’s using limited resources to make the most of the situation.


PDT: But what’s challenging in Afghanistan is that a lot of these women don’t have strong public role models or mentors or networks and yet they still exist; how and why?

GAYLE: I think they exist because women know that families are counting upon them and so they step up and they do the very hard work of making sure the family gets through very difficult times. You know, I interviewed women who had worked through the Taliban years selling cotton, women who had sold fruits and vegetables, women who had made burqas that were sold at the market. And what was funny was one woman told me that during the Taliban years, the back of the bus became the women’s zone, because that was the Taliban’s rules, but that those discussions when you were in that women’s section of the bus were all business, and which shopkeeper was buying what from which woman. And it was because necessity drove women to find ways to provide for their family and when a lot of women, once the Taliban left, realized they were actually pretty good at business, they stayed in it.


PDT: Just in terms of creating that entrepreneurial class, in your talks and work you talk about the multiplier effect.

GAYLE: Yes, right. I did a New York Times piece about the multiplier effect of women in particular. Because they become home-grown role models. And you see that now, slowly. And you see women who are inspiring their brothers and their sons and their husbands to go into business because they see how tangible and quick and useful the impact is of starting a business that brings money into the household. And it’s not easy for men in tough countries, right? I mean, you have men who are supporting 12, 13, 14 family members. So if women can bring money in, that’s actually a very good thing, and most of the time in traditional societies, women don’t go into entrepreneurship for personal glorification or to become the next Donald Trump: they do it to help their families and help their communities.

PDT photo


PDT: But it sounds like just based on what you’re saying there is that the impact that women are having is so massive, and another thing that struck me about when you go out and you talk about female entrepreneurship in Afghanistan is how most people are quick to put Afghan women and a lot of women in the developing world in a microfinance bucket.

GAYLE: That’s right.

PDT: Can you talk a little bit about that?

GAYLE: Yeah, I think that we’ve been very – and I mean, definitely to bring it beyond Afghanistan, I think that when it comes to women generally we aim low and we give small dollars. And if I say “microfinance” you think of women and if I say “entrepreneur” you think of men. Most of the time. And the truth is that women can do more than microfinance, and they are doing more than microfinance, but this has become a problem because I think we’ve confused a solution, which microfinance certainly is, and really does make a difference for many families, with the solution, which, you know, it is not the only thing women are capable of. And the challenge is helping women to grow beyond the micro and helping them to get access to finance, access to markets, and access to networks, which is what both men and women need to move beyond.


PDT: And there’s a lot of obstacles to doing that, whether it’s the absence of finance –

GAYLE: Enormous.

PDT: Everybody really talks about the obstacles, can you tell us about some of the opportunities in a place like Afghanistan?

GAYLE: Sure. I mean, you see entrepreneurs who are already on the ground working very hard to meet local market needs and also to meet international market needs. So, for example, there’s a soccer ball entrepreneur right now who’s trying to find customers in the U.S. because she has one customer and if she could get more she could ship more soccer balls over. And that works: creating opportunities for women all around her neighbourhood, some of whom have very limited mobility, and many of whom then have husbands who get very interested in the work they’re doing because it’s money coming in.

And I think you see that across Afghanistan. I was doing a set of interviews around an agriculture project that had market linkage built into it at the beginning, and this woman said to me, “when I first started here my husband wouldn’t even let me go to the well to get water myself, and now all he asks me when I go to Kabul twice a month with a group of women is “how much money did you make, and how much did you bring back?”

And you see that over and over, you really do. Oftentimes people say, “Oh, these are just the exceptions,” and I think it’s just when women see the laws of economic gravity not to apply. I mean, why is it that every time we talk about a woman who starts her own business we start pooh-poohing it and say that’s not the real story, the real story is the victim story. And the whole point of writing stories like this is showing that there are women on the ground who will do this work whether the international community is paying attention or not. But shouldn’t they be worthy of resources as economic actors since the international community is paying attention to them.


PDT: And as the international community pays attention, what lessons can these Afghan entrepreneurs offer to those in the West? What can we learn from their stories and their business models?

GAYLE: It’s so interesting. So I get emails now at least 3 or 4 times a week from women entrepreneurs in this country who say that the Dressmaker book really helped them rethink the obstacles they face, because the resilience of entrepreneurs in some parts of the world is worthy of respect. People are always finding ways around the obstacles, whether it is infrastructure, whether it is security, whether it is a challenge because of imports that are cheaper coming in from China or Iraq or Pakistan. People are always sort of using entrepreneurial energy to find a way around the obstacles they face, and I think that is the real lesson, which is that it is not easy but there usually is a way around the obstacle.

PDT photo. Afghan women at a Peace Dividend Marketplace event

PDT: Great, and then just in the last few minutes that we have, and thank you so much for your generous time –

GAYLE: Oh it’s my pleasure, it’s such a great organization.

PDT: Well that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to kind of tie it into Peace Dividend Trust and ask some questions that particularly relate to us, and one of them is how do you think our work here at PDT relates to the things that you’ve seen and the work that you’ve done in Afghanistan?

GAYLE: Well, I think it’s tapping into local entrepreneurial energy, which is all there, and which is often overlooked. And I think that’s what PDT does well, which is to sort of help harness some of that energy and channel it toward the international community which is going to be making purchases. And it makes sure that people realize you don’t have to import everything, that there are local entrepreneurs on the ground who can meet needs and who can be helped to meet and produce international standards, and that it doesn’t have to be foreigners working with foreigners, it should be foreigners investing in local communities that they then leave. You know, it shouldn’t be a full employment act for the international community, it should be a way to foster entrepreneurship that is already going on. And I think that matchmaking role really does make a difference, matchmaking between the international community and international opportunities with local entrepreneurs.


PDT: And as we do the matchmaking we’re actually thinking about going into financing and helping expand financing opportunities for entrepreneurs, where do you think Peace Dividend Trust should concentrate on helping Afghan entrepreneurs?

GAYLE: I think the same in Afghanistan as elsewhere, which is, you know, helping in the middle, helping with people who need a small- and medium-enterprise budget, and I think the challenge is that nobody wants to lend to small businesses even in a country like the U.S. because it’s risky, so you can imagine the risk in tough parts of the world is much higher. So the question is how can you help mitigate some of that risk and does a loan guarantee fund make a difference, or does something like that which helps with access to finance make a difference. I also think access to markets is a really important piece that needs to be resolved, which is helping entrepreneurs who have a particularly good of interest meet up with people who want to buy that good, whether it’s in that country or elsewhere. The middleman role is very important, so that people can achieve scale and so that people can find markets for the work that they’re producing, which then creates jobs for people on the ground.


PDT: And moving forward, we heard President Obama talk the other night about the troop reductions, and you hear as Secretary Robert Gates leaves the office he talks about how it’s not about reducing the troops but it’s getting the job right, and I heard Raj Shah this morning on NPR talking about the importance of sustainability. Can you just tell us your thoughts about how does Afghanistan move forward from here?

GAYLE: I think sustainability is the key, and I think having entrepreneurial drive on the ground is part of the key, I think so much money has gone in that it really overwhelmed everything else, but I think that helping entrepreneurs to create a community that sustains itself long after the international aid dollars are gone is really important, and that’s why it’s important to link to both local and international markets that can create jobs that will keep people moving forward.


PDT: Well we agree! Thank you for your time. […] We really love that you’re out there telling the stories of these entrepreneurs because it really is necessary to get the stories out; as you said, they’re not just victims, they are survivors, and so we’re incredibly grateful that you took the time to chat with us.

GAYLE: Well it was my pleasure, and I look forward to the post.


Thanks again, Gayle!

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  1. […] Yes, exactly. And it really does depend on perspective, too – we were talking to Gayle Lemmon, who says that people don’t invest in victims, they invest in surv…, so you really do have to display the dignity in these entrepreneurs and in the people who are […]

  2. mcme says:

    A.Taliban and security forces are obstacles
    to be worked around.Your country has been
    decimated for to long.The time has come to
    build your country, may it start with you
    and continue for generations to come..

  3. […] more market-based and visionary.  But this is radically changing, even in areas of conflict such as Afghanistan where women are not just looking to micro-finance and micro-businesses, but looking to big, […]

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