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Investing in female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan

Afghan women walk during a gathering held to mark International Women's Day at Babur garden in Kabul on March 10, 2011. International Women's Day (IWD), originally called International Working Women's Day, is marked on March 8 every year.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with his NATO colleagues on Afghanistan today. There's too much talk about leaving Afghanistan, Gates said, not enough talk about getting the job done right.

Part of getting the job done right will be helping the Afghan economy. As foreign troops pull out, economic development teams are on the ground. Aid programs are in place, aid that's increasingly being directed at women. It's not a huge amount -- less than 2 cents of every dollar goes to women.

A couple of years ago, though, it was more like half a cent that was going to female entrepreneurs who're creating jobs and helping to build companies. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon profiles some of them in a new book, it's called "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana." Gayle, good to talk to you.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Thank you for having me.

Ryssdal: Talk to me for a second about -- in bald, capital terms -- the return on investment from investing in female entrepreneurs. I mean, everybody from Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times to Larry Summers, the former Secretary of the Treasury and White House economic guy, say 'Listen, you want to build a society, you want to fix things, you want to make changes -- invest in the women.'

Lemmon: Absolutely. Kamila Sidiqi, the protagonist in this book, says brilliantly, 'Money is power for women, and money changes the dynamic in the family.' A lot of times you have men in Afghanistan who are supporting 12, 13, 14, 15 family members on one income, which could be as little as $150 or $200 a month, if you're fortunate. So you can imagine that by the time they get a daughter or sister or wife who has the ability to bring money into the household, that changes the dynamic within the family. And the respect that they get, the way that they're able to integrate girls and boys when it comes to education, that then promotes stability within the family, and that promotes stability within the community.

Ryssdal: And then that plays out through society writ large?

Lemmon: Absolutely. And I think that's what you see over and over again, as I think people are often very quick to dismiss women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. 'They don't exist' or 'This is a country where women are locked up inside.' And the truth is, women have been getting families through very difficult times in that country for as long as history's been written, and certainly, during the last 30 years of conflict.

Ryssdal: Obviously, women of all ages and walks of life are starting business in Afghanistan. But I was struck by this story of one especially young woman, she's 23 years old, her name is Shahla Akbari. She started a shoe label. How did she do that?

Lemmon: This is a great story about the multiplier effect. What happened was her mother was an entrepreneur who was working in a furniture business, and she saw the example of her mother. And I think from that example, she thought, 'Well why couldn't I do it too?'

Ryssdal: And she actually had a little bit hutzpah too; I love her label, it's "Made in Afghanistan."

Lemmon: When you are in Afghanistan, you'll see that so much is imported from China, from Pakistan, from Iran. There's great leather domestically within Afghanistan; there's great fruit and vegetables. But it's much more expensive to produce for the local market than to import. And so you see a lot of people say, 'OK, why can't we make this a marketing advantage and actually promote homemade goods, promote things that are coming from the Afghan market?'

Ryssdal: Do they use local capital too? Where do women like Shahla Akbari get their seed money?

Lemmon: This is one of the biggest issues when you talk about women's entrepreneurship anywhere in the world, but particularly in difficult countries. Access to capital is daunting, because there's a lot of microfinance available, and everybody's pretty quick to put women in the microfinance bucket. But if you talk about larger dollars that you need, it's pretty tough. So what you find a lot is people who just start small and then re-invest profits. Some people who also get grant money to start, you know, there's a lot, billions of dollars worth of aid money coming into Afghanistan -- precious little of it actually goes to small business. But that which does is often used as seed capital.

Ryssdal: Does this trend of female entrepreneurs -- successful female entrepreneurs -- keep going when and if Western forces leave Afghanistan?

Lemmon: You know, these women want peace desperately. The fear is that the world will withdraw before its security forces, before its govern instructors can catch up. And I think what women want now is a seat at the table in any kind of settlement or negotiation with the Taliban, because I think businesswomen, in particular, fear that their ability to contribute to their families will go away the moment that the Taliban return.

Ryssdal: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon from the Council of Foreign Relations. Her new book is called "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana." Gayle, thanks a lot.

Lemmon: Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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