A couple months ago, I was very fortunate to receive an email from Simran Kaur Lohnes – owner and representative of a new business called Afghan Black Cat, based out of Kabul, Afghanistan, which only employs Afghan women to sew and produce handbags and jewelry. Her reason for contacting me was because she had come across my blog which contained a sketch I’d drawn, a few years ago, of a pretty Afghan girl that she wanted to include in the promotional material for the business. Of course, upon hearing that, I was beyond thrilled! But more than having my artwork and blog promoted through such a great initiative, I felt even more elated about the purpose and goal of this business, and the fact that it deals with something that is very dear and close to my heart: women’s empowerment.
Curious, I wanted to learn more about Afghan Black Cat and how it contributes to women’s empowerment by interviewing Simran Jaaney herself. And, so, below is her thorough, inspiring, informative, and very insightful interview.
Me: Tell us a little bit about yourself; your background and interest in starting this business.
Simran: I have lived in Afghanistan since 2006. Before that, I was living in Singapore (for 15 years) and I was hired from there into the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency (AISA) as Deputy Director. Prior to that, I had travelled to Afghanistan three times, visiting different historic sites.
The first time I came to Afghanistan was purely to visit the Panjshir Valley and the tomb of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who to me is one of the greatest persons of recent world history.
It was he who inspired me to come to Afghanistan, to work for his values of a modern, democratic and moderate Islamic society. He was also a big advocate for women’s rights – contrary to most of his compatriots at the time and of course today.
After I resigned from AISA in 2009, I started a consulting business that assists private sector companies in Afghanistan with any challenges they encounter there.
Last year, I then took an interest in handbag-making and I took an online class myself. This motivated me to start this as a business for the following reasons:
- It offers good opportunities for women to work outside of their home, as many are already accomplished seamstresses.
- There are few afghan fashion products which appeal to western consumers as most are too traditional and ethnic in nature. I therefore thought this would be a good opportunity to create a modernized line of fashion accessories, which still use domestic traditional materials, but are modern enough to appeal to western consumers.
- Thirdly, I was keen on building a for-profit manufacturing business. Most businesses in Afghanistan are still construction, logistics, mining and traders. There are few which actually produce something and which have an actual value-addition in their supply chain.
Me: What encouraged you to start this business in the first place? What inspired/influenced you?
Simran: Our basic motivation in starting this business was to provide employment for an increasing number of Afghan women. Something in dire need in today’s Afghanistan — a country that is still staring down the abyss of continued conflict. We believe that economic and social growth is the best defense against war and unrest.
It is further our goal to maintain a majority female staff.
After ten years of international development effort, Afghanistan has managed to make progress in some areas of its political and economic aspirations. Especially in infrastructure and education, things have improved in some parts of the country compared to Taliban times and the 20 years of strife prior to that.
One important area, however, has seen little progress and – far from substantial improvements – has simply reverted to pre-Taliban levels, which in most parts of the country means no change at all: the de-facto rights of women and their social position.
Me: How will women become empowered in your business?
Simran: There is still wide-spread discrimination against women and girls. As a result the social position of women in Afghanistan remains low and dependent on their male relatives.
Black Cat Afghan Products wants to contribute towards women’s empowerment by improving women’s standing in Afghan society and by employing a majority of women staff, thereby making them a main breadwinner of their respective families.
Afghanistan being a conservative country, work conducted by women has to be carefully selected so as to not provoke basic objections in society, which would stifle the entire project even from among moderate circles. For this reason, Black Cat has selected the sewing of handbags and jewelry-making as a suitable enterprise.
Our bag-making ladies, who are all experienced seamstresses, are as follows:
A native of Baghlan Province in northern Afghanistan, the 55-year old who has a family of eight children, has been living in the capital for 12 years. Before joining Black Cat as the workers’ supervisor, she worked for a French donor organization as a community liaison. After the termination of this program she was unemployed for one year.
“With the money I am making it has become much easier to send all my children to school. It is my biggest hope that Afghanistan will be peaceful soon and my children have good job opportunities.”
Mrs. Zermina Abdulhamid
The 25-year-old is a native of Wardak Province just south of Kabul. She has been living with her family in the capital for four years after returning from Pakistan, where she lived for 15 years. The family does not own a house here and is forced to rent a small property in the Khair Khana district of Kabul. The rent is putting a heavy burden on the young family’s budget and Zermina is grateful for the additional income she generates working for Black Cat.
Mrs. Zabara Abdulkadir
The 30-year-old is a native of Kunduz in northernAfghanistan. She has six children and moved to Kabul eight years ago. She and her family, too, are only renting a property in the capital which makes making ends meet tough especially since the husband is not stably employed. As an experienced seamstress, she is happy to get out of the house and earn the necessary income for the family.
“Being at home all of the time is boring,” she says with a smile. “It is nice to get out.”
Ms. Najiba Abdulhabib
The 18-year-old just graduated from high-school. She, too, is from Baghlan Province and came to Kabul with her cousin, Zabara. Still unmarried, she is planning to go for higher education, but limited funds of her family has been keeping her at home.
She is looking forward to using some of her wages to realize her dream of becoming a teacher.
Ms. Salima Abdulhamid
The 20-year-old is a cousin of Zarmina and Najiba, and is also from the Baghlan Province.
Me: Who is your main audience and where and how far do you aim to go with this business? Do you have any other projects (humanitarian) in mind?
Simran: My main goal is to have a few boutiques in foreign countries that will buy my products regularly. My target-cities are New York City, Los Angeles, Munich, Berlin, London, Dubai, and Mumbai. In each of these cities, I want to find at least one boutique which fulfills my brand ambitions and which caters to the niche market my handbags and jewelry are targeting.
While there is still a foreign audience here in Kabul, I also want to target the foreigners here, especially those with high spending power. But since this market will be reduced significantly in the next couple of years, my main target are overseas markets.
Above and beyond the handbags and jewelry, I want to sew two more products – one more catered towards the high-spenders in the West, and the other targeting the local market with a product for women which are in short supply. However, I am not going to go into detail about these products, as this part of the world is notorious for “steal-other-people’s-ideas-central.” I hope you understand.
I try to make use of the sewing workshop as much as possible to get a return on investment (ROI) on the investment in the machines, which I have made.
Me: Explain the business process (briefly), how you produce your products, and how they, in turn, contribute to the overall empowerment of women living in Afghanistan.
Simran: I personally design the bags, create a schematic outline of each model and the women cut and sew the bags according to those schematics.
99 percent of all input is purchased in Kabul. I use both modern imported materials (but purchased in the Kabul bazaar) as well as traditional Afghan embroidery and local silk materials. The only thing I have to import is the bag accessories such as buckles, feet, etc.
Most women in Afghanistan have difficulties leaving the house – some more some less, but generally there is a barrier for them to seek employment outside the home. The main reason is that still many families consider it improper for women to be permanently seen by men and that women should not have to be forced to seek income as the man is the provider of the family. Again these attitudes vary from family to family.
But to most women, this is a very stifling life and most would like to be able to have an occupation outside the house.
Bringing together a group of women who work with a woman-boss allowed me to get the families’ permission to let my workers leave the house on a daily basis. And plus, these families are not very conservative.
Most importantly they are earning an income which is important to the families. It empowers women because they contribute substantially to the family’s income which raises their status. It shows that women are capable of more than giving birth and raising children.
Furthermore, I hope to set an example as a woman – foreign, but still – that it is possible for us to create and run a business independently.
You can learn more about Afghan Black Cat, the people behind this wonderful initiative, and the beautiful products they sell at the following website: http://www.afghanblackcat.com/
Also, below is the official promotional material/catalogue, which will be available both in print and online, of the products they sell; it also contains my drawing of the Afghan girl (on the second page), for those who are curious/interested, of course. (I have provided screen shots of the catalogue, which is six pages in total, as the original file is in PDF.)