During my recent trip to Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to travel with Alex Zahir, a rug importer based in Knoxville, TN. Zahir was born into a rug weaving family in Afghanistan and has used his familiarity with these rugs to bring them to the USA for sale to stores across America.
Together, Alex and I developed and produced a CARPET EXPORT CONFERENCE for the Department of Commerce that was presented to Afghan business people involved in the carpet trade. All day workshops were offered in Kabul, in Mazar-e Sharif and in Heart. Each workshop was a conference in the truest sense as we were able to get the attendees talking about the obstacles they face in their businesses. I was overwhelmed by the openness and the candor with which they spoke about their businesses. At each venue we had 1o to 12 ladies and the mood was so uplifting and constructive, that even they spoke out on issues that specifically confront the women in the rug making business.
The objective of the conference was to enhance sales prospects in the US market for Afghanistan’s carpet producing organizations by providing knowledge and training. Attendees completed a rather lengthy questionnaire that will give us a snapshot of the mood and condition of the industry in 2011. This will help us see the changes since we began this quest in 2007 and plan our work in the future.
I believe this industry is unique since it requires little investment and is indigenous to the peoples of Afghanistan. It can stand on its own. It can provide a base for industrial development to service itself as carpet finishing returns from Pakistan. As equity grows, local and other investors will build spinning mills to spin Afghan wool. They will construct plants to make soaps and chemicals used in finishing which are now entirely imported from Pakistan.
This was my second visit to Afghanistan and Alex’s first trip to his homeland in 28 years. I saw a totally different city in Kabul. The first thing that hits you is the new airport, and as you head into the city steel and concrete buildings are going up everywhere. There are now billboards selling goods and something that you just did not see back in 2007: traffic jams! After the military draws down there will still be a lot of need for road construction. There is also a significant change in attitude. Now, there is a definite sense of purpose to get on with business.
I will summarize my observations for Washington and I hope to make another trip back to Afghanistan in early 2012 to ramp up the education and training to help the carpet makers there develop an “Afghan brand.”