Planning began for a study tour for Afghan carpet makers in January, 2014 when I asked two Indian rugs makers if they would allow me to bring a delegation of Afghans to visit their facilities. Obeetee, Limited, who is our longtime largest vendor, and Saraswati Global PVT. Limited, who is the maker of the largest rug we have ever purchased, both agreed to host us at their factories.
The trip would be for the benefit of the Afghan Carpet Center of Excellence (ACCOE), a project funded by the US Dept. of Commerce with whom I have worked since 2007. After 2010 I, among others, have been Subject Matter Experts and supported various US Gov’t efforts. The newest is the ACCOE which is an endeavor to establish an institution in Kabul to enable the Afghan carpet business to survive and prosper in the coming years.
The Center intends to bring the steadfastly regional carpet makes together in a national body for the first time. The ACCOE’s central goal is to find areas where a national approach would create synergy in dealing with shipping companies, finance companies and with their own government. Additionally, the ACCOE will concentrate on national marketing programs, buyer outreach and trade show participation for its members.
The study tour to India was devised to expose the Afghan carpet makers to the best rug making practices in the world market. (There is little doubt that India has developed the most effective carpet and rug making industry in the world.) The trip also allowed us to get a select group of 12 Afghan managers away from their daily business pressures to allow them to focus on their future. On May 18th we set out for India; first for two days of ACCOE organizational discussion in Varanasi, then two remarkable days with Obeetee in Mirzapur. Then, the group flew to Jaipur for another two days of ACCOE planning and then two spectacular days with Saraswati Global.
In addition to the 12 Afghan businesses, (10 men and 2 women), there were five Americans (all men), who helped them travel across such the unfamiliar country and guided them through the ACCOE organization process. The concept and benefit of a Center of Excellence was greeted warmly by the participants with everyone seeing the strengths of a countrywide approach to problem solving. Some members of the Afghan delegation had never even met, but were fast friends after 10 days together.
The two companies that we visited could not have been more welcoming and open. Each company helped us plan our trip, they arranged for hotels, busses and fed us lunch each day during our tours. They both showed the Afghans their customer support operations, style and design, yarn making, and dyeing. The dye houses, particularly, impressed our group. None of the Afghans had ever seen or could have imagined anything on that scale. We were shown weaving in a workroom as well as in nearby villages. In spite of the similarity this operation to their own, our group saw many loom set-up and weave refinements that could help them in the future. Even I had a major revelation while visiting a village named Mazipur; I’ll write about this in a future blog post.
In hand tufted rugs, some of the Afghans saw something they had never seen before and all of them saw the actual tufting process for the first time. They we awed and amazed. At first, they all wanted to switch their production to this method, but after learning the tufted selling prices, they realized that their strength was in hand knotted rugs.
The delegation spent considerable time at both of our host companies in their finishing departments. Afghanistan has little effective shearing, washing and rug finishing within its borders and the makers continue to send over 90% of their weaving to Pakistan and Turkey for these important processes. Insights from this part of the factory tours may go a long way to help solve one of the Afghan carpet trade’s biggest problems; the lack of effective washing and finishing.
The final process reviewed during the tours, and another very important one, was packing and shipping. Inasmuch as the Pakistanis make the bulk of the final shipment of Afghanistan’s rugs, there is little resident knowledge on customer expectations of the products that they receive. The Afghans saw an attention to detail in this area that truly separates the rug makers of India from any other country’s rug businesses.
While every one of the travelers saw something that may help them in their own businesses, it is the collective knowledge that was gained that will become the real value of this trip to the ACCOE. In its role as a national body determined to help the carpet exporters of Afghanistan the ACCOE should plan more trips of this nature.
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