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This spring a company called Aayenda has toured trade fairs in the US and the UK with an unusual jewellery range: pieces by Afghan artisans, funded by the US Department of Defense.
Their efforts fall under a US government agency called the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. The organisation was formed in 2006 originally for operations in Iraq and with the aim of kick-starting small and medium-sized businesses in conflict zones.
“The idea is simple,” says Aki Peritz, senior national security policy adviser at Third Wave, a Washington DC-based think-tank. “Small businesses create an employed middle class. The employed are happy, ergo they don’t join terrorist factions and shoot at Americans.”
Task Force is now working in Afghanistan, where it aims to revitalise traditional industries. According to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, as of summer 2013 the US had allocated about $96.57bn on relief and reconstruction in the country since 2002.
Task Force joined forces with Sophia Swire, a British businesswoman, social entrepreneur and sister of Hugo Swire, UK Foreign Office minister. In 2012 she set up Future Brilliance, the charity behind the Aayenda jewellery line.
The charity says 100 per cent of net profits from the jewellery line are returned to Future Brilliance to be spent on tools and other equipment, and the running costs of the workshop, as well as growing the artisans’ digital sales platform.
With the intention of training Afghans not just in jewellery-making but also in entrepreneurship, Ms Swire sought funding from Task Force.
“I went looking for anyone who would fund it,” she says. “The American military was working closely with Usaid [the US international development agency], providing security and some funding in Panjshir valley, where emeralds are found. Task Force stepped up.”
In the summer of 2013, US federal funds helped send 36 Afghan artisans to Jaipur in India to be trained in gemmology and jewellery design, then set them up in their own businesses on their return.
“This brings employment into the home. Something that doesn’t first require literacy empowers the ‘bottom million’,” says Ms Swire. “It empowers women, in particular, because a large number are war widows.”
In partnership with the Afghan government, Future Brilliance is working on a digital literacy scheme.
It has distributed 70 solar-charging WiFi and SIM-enabled, network-agnostic tablets customised in the Dari language.
They will allow the entrepreneurs, including the 36 already trained, to manage the process of their companies’ supply chains. The jewellers will be able to use tablet apps, for example, to receive, enter and manage orders for 2,000 lapis lazuli drop earrings, including such supply chain steps as projecting the amount of materials required and costing out the purchasing process.
The devices are linked to Shopify – a worldwide digital retail website – and other online stores. Future Brilliance is also working towards the collection being sold in stores.
But before these goals can be reached, other hurdles must be overcome.
Historically, Afghan government levies on the mining of gemstones are high.
Ms Swire has acted as a consultant to the World Bank in an attempt to rewrite the gemstone royalty policy as an adviser to the Afghanistan Ministry of Mines.
The Afghan government is considering reducing royalties to about 10 per cent, a figure that Ms Swire says would be necessary for Afghan miners and gem dealers to be competitive in the global market.
But can the project, and its mission to create jewellery companies, be effective in stemming violence.
“Is it proven? Probably not,” says Third Wave’s Mr Peritz. “Afghanistan has all kind of problems. Flying people to Jaipur to train them, then flying them back home, just seems like it costs a lot of money. But it’s difficult to see whether spurring the economy in small areas has a causal relation to decreasing violence.
“If you look at what we’ve done in Iraq and Afghanistan, we just throw money at things.”
But policy discussions are irrelevant to the Afghan women in the scheme, according to Future Brilliance. “We know it will take time, but it’s a wonderful start,” says Roya Hayat, gender manager at the charity.
“The majority of the women we trained now have independent businesses, such as Khala Zada. She was doing a business and was struggling on how to deal with clients. She never kept records of expenditures – she didn’t know how to keep invoices. Now she has doubled her sales in the last six months.”
Task Force expects to end its work in Afghanistan in the near future, which means funding for Aayenda will finish at the end of this year.
Ms Swire is determined to find funding elsewhere. “I’ve been on this mission for six years,” she says. “If we have to turn to social impact investment, that’s an option. This is the new way things are being done.”
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