Afghan tech entrepreneur Sara Wahedi has torn up her staff list. These days, the few remaining employees of his app company in Afghanistan work when they can, between power cuts and internet outages.
Five months after the Taliban took power, Afghan businesses like Wahedi’s are struggling to stay afloat as international sanctions and restrictions on the militia fuel a deepening economic crisis.
“We’re running on steam right now,” Wahedi, 26, said by email from New York, where she remotely manages Ehtesab, the mobile app she founded that provides real-time alerts on security, traffic and power outages in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Wahedi had a group of security experts, journalists, government officials and volunteers to review and verify the reports, allowing Ehtesab to send alerts within minutes. Since most of them have left Afghanistan, it takes up to 15 minutes now.
Unless international investment and funding resumes, she said Afghan start-ups will be “paralyzed”.
“It’s understandable that Afghanistan is an unstable environment, but without any market, entrepreneurs, especially social entrepreneurs like me, are on their own,” Wahedi said.
The Taliban’s whirlwind takeover saw billions of dollars in Afghan assets frozen overseas. International funding, which had supported 75% of government spending, also dried up overnight.
Banks ran out of cash, millions lost their jobs or weren’t paid, the local currency plunged, while prices soared, plunging millions of Afghans into poverty as businesses were closing and wages were not being paid. The onset of winter has worsened conditions.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called earlier this month for the suspension of rules preventing the money from being used to save lives and the economy, and for a way to free up currency reserves Afghans frozen to “avoid a collapse”.
Without more cash in circulation, the few limping businesses will also be forced to give up, said Matiullah Rahmaty, who has seen BrightPoint, his once-bustling Kabul-based business advisory firm, shut down since August.
“For businesses, cash liquidity is like blood in the veins,” Rahmaty, 26, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi, his home since October.
‘Nothing to do’
In the weeks before the Taliban stunned by overrunning Kabul, Rahmaty said his schedule was packed.
He was preparing to give a TEDx talk about entrepreneurs overcoming obstacles and planning to set a date for his wedding, but everything was put on hold.
About 20 employees were reduced to four, a dozen projects with international clients were reduced to nothing and the cash flow dried up.
“In one day we were there doing nothing,” said Rahmaty, who fled Afghanistan with his fiancee for fear of Taliban reprisals for his work with foreign organizations.
Security risks – and an uncertain future – have prompted more wealthy Afghans to flee, aggravating a brain drain of skilled professionals, which several Afghan entrepreneurs say will further hamper economic recovery.
Despite the sanctions, humanitarian aid, which foreign governments have maintained, is helpful but will not help revive the economy and create jobs, Afghan entrepreneurs have said.
“We have become beggars, begging for humanitarian aid. It doesn’t work in the long run,” said Abdul Ehsan Mohmand, chief executive of one of Afghanistan’s leading infrastructure companies, Dynamic Vision.
He urged the international community to create jobs in the private sector, warning that otherwise poor Afghans – like the 350 workers he had to lay off from a UN-funded water project – would suffer the most .
With more than 300 projects, some 1,200 employees and an annual turnover of $10 million, Mohmand aimed to expand its operations in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.
But with millions of dollars stuck in unpaid dues and limited cash, he said he had scrapped his expansion plans.
“(The Taliban takeover) has condemned the private sector to death,” he said.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has launched several initiatives, including one that provides grants to Afghan small and micro businesses, especially those owned by women, and offers cash-for-work projects to the unemployed.
Since their return to power, the Taliban have restricted women’s rights, preventing most from working.
The pending projects can be completed with investments, including several renewable power plants that could solve power shortages causing frequent blackouts, Dynamic Vision’s Mohmand said.
Remote work for foreign companies has become a lifeline for tech-savvy Afghans like Murtaza, who shut down his software development start-up in August as projects fizzled, but long outages also threaten this source of income. income.
“When you don’t have electricity for 10 hours a day and poor, unreliable internet, it becomes very difficult to do anything,” said Murtaza, who taught online coding lessons. to American students.
“The online training I provide gives me enough income to survive,” he said, asking not to give his full name.
Several contractors said that while power cuts have always plagued Afghanistan, periods without electricity have increased from about four hours to 12 hours a day.
They cited reports of the electric utility’s growing debt to neighboring countries that supply most of Afghanistan’s electricity.
Foreign companies should set flexible deadlines for Afghans doing remote work for them, said Ali Aslan Gumusay, head of the innovation and entrepreneurship research group at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Communication. company, based in Berlin.
“Spread out the work window for a week or two,” Gumusay urged in a video call.
Technology to the rescue
Some Afghan businesses are finding other ways to adapt.
Mohmand said Dynamic Vision had shifted its business from infrastructure to humanitarian work, such as research on the UN migration agency, IOM.
After starting to market its app via Facebook ads last month, Wahedi said there were more than 600 downloads in three weeks, showing there was still “interest and impact”.
Locked in his room while awaiting the processing of his asylum application in France, Rahmaty says he has developed a platform called “Entrepreneur on the Go” which he intends to launch in a few weeks.
It will help other migrant entrepreneurs access a network of tools and contacts to set up businesses in host countries, including mentors, language teachers and lawyers.
Once in France, he said he plans to channel work opportunities to Afghanistan.
“I couldn’t help our situation from the inside and that’s why I left… Now I can go out, do some business with some clients and send some business back home.”