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Entrepreneurship Changes Lives of Bamyan Weavers

A Brief Introduction to a Project of Friendship and Goodwill


What most people know about Bamyan is the thousand-year-old Buddhas, blown up by Taliban in 2001; the beautiful natural lake, Band-e-Amir; potatoes; ski valleys; and cold winters. But that’s not all to the province. It has weavers, entrepreneurs, and most importantly, innovators to make a name for the province. Bamyan Weavers Project is an example of an initiative that combines the will of women weavers, support of a number of American and Afghan friends, and innovation of experts to build a barak (wool) fabric weaving business that improves the lives of the weavers, feeds their families, and develops their communities.

Bamyan Weavers Project

The purpose of Bamyan Weavers Project is to provide the development of fair, paid employment for the women weavers of Bamyan, some of whom live in the caves above the town, where the two great sculptures of the Buddha once stood. Skillful, determined, and hard-working, these are mothers who want a better life for their children. The production of barak fabric is the only reliable source of income for these women. Barak is woven from local wool and boiled to make a fabric that is both wind and water-resistant. Depending on the thickness of the weave, the fabric is either dense and heavy enough to be made into outerwear for the harsh winters in Afghanistan, or is lighter-weight and suitable for other kinds of clothing such as scarves and tailored fashions. Barak is good for making a variety of products, from vests and coats to shoes and hats. The women weavers have the will, the skills, and the motivation to weave barak fabric in one of the most distant rural areas of Afghanistan. But they lack the education, training, experience, and the capital to market and sell their products on their own.
Zahra Kazemi in her Bamyan shop, showing a pair of felt slippers

The Role of Entrepreneurship

Zahra Kazemi, a local entrepreneur, currently sells their products on consignment basis in a small shop located in Bamyan. She has 22 years of experience in handicrafts business. She learnt tailoring and designing from her tailor mother when she was a little girl, having broken her mother’s sewing machine several times. (Don’t most entrepreneurs fail once in a while?) She has taken multiple business, tailoring, and designing courses over the years through various programs including Goldman Sach’s 10,000 Women project. Today, she is a professional designer of wool spinning and can design and texture rugs, socks, gloves, jackets, scarves,, felt boots, and local clothes. She sells the Bamyan weavers’ barak fabric in various forms, helping them make a living.
The Goodwill of Friends of Afghanistan The Bamyan weavers are not alone. They are supported and advised by Mary MacMakin, the remarkable ninety-year old American who has lived in Afghanistan for decades. She was recently granted honorary citizenship of Afghanistan by President Ghani. She has championed the project and stood up for the women for years. They have also had the generous support of Americans who served in Afghanistan as Peace Corps Volunteers, Afghan-Americans, and Afghans themselves. These members of Friends of Afghanistan support the women with their time, money, mentorship, and expertise. The friends of the Bamyan weavers conduct monthly Skype calls to check in with Zahra Kazemi, make suggestions and provide assistance. On one occasion, for example, Phil Smith was able to explain how to correct the set-up of the new loom when it wasn’t operating properly. The group has also suggested ways to improve the design of a new product, a laptop computer bag made of barak. As the saying goes, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” One is Phil Smith, who learned to weave from women in Herat, where he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1970. He knew that traditionally weavers made barak on the ground by hand. This method is slow and limits how much the weavers can produce. It takes three women three days to weave a single meter of barak fabric on the traditional ground loom. Women cannot use the ground loom in winter, and have to be in a crouched position when they can. It’s a tiring, uncomfortable, and inefficient process.
Innovation Now an experienced weaver himself, Smith knew that a counterbalance loom would be a much easier and more efficient way for the women to weave. Through the support of Friends of Afghanistan, he arranged to have a counterbalance loom like his own made by a carpenter in the United States and shipped to Bamyan. He says: “the counterbalance loom is 12 times more efficient than the traditional ground weaving method.” On this loom each woman can weave 1-1.5 meters of fabric every day, operate year around, and sit on a bench, protecting her well-being. The new loom is more efficient, comfortable, and professional, increasing the women’s productivity and income so they can produce new items for the new markets. Zahra Kazemi commissioned a local carpenter in Bamyan to made a second copy of the counterbalance loom using walnut wood in order to enable and empower more women weavers. She plans to work with the weavers to market their products in the capital Kabul, and in the countries surrounding Afghanistan, before exploring the possibility of markets in the United States and Europe. The goal of the members of Friends of Afghanistan is to assist the Bamyan weavers to establish a self-sustaining business. They are raising funds to support the weavers in achieving that objective. “Any donation to the Bamyan Weavers Project is an investment in the lives of these women and their children and families,” says Will Irwin, one of the U.S. supporters of the project. “The women need more looms, more space to work in, and marketing support to sell their products.”
Mary MacMakin, decades-long supporter of Afghan women learning handicrafts
Conclusion The Bamyan Weavers Project exemplifies the power of volunteerism, entrepreneurship, innovation, and goodwill, that, when combined, can change the lives of the women, their children and families even if they live in the farthest districts of Afghanistan, or the caves of Bamyan. True change comes from the collective work of many individuals and institutions that believe in the potential of development through business.
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