5 Things You Need to Know About Turquoise Mountain

turquoise mountain logoEstablished in 2006 by Prince Charles in partnership with Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s former president, the non-profit, non-governmental organization Turquoise Mountain aims to preserve historical areas and revive traditional artisanal activities in Afghanistan. In just over a decade, the organization has already achieved remarkable success, garnering an international reputation and transforming the lives of thousands of Afghans. Read on for the five things you need to know about this unique organization that are helping to revitalize a cultural industry and rebuild a country.

  1. Turquoise Mountain is bringing traditional Afghan arts and crafts back to life.

Due to decades of civil conflict and political instability in Afghanistan, many traditional arts and crafts practices were, until recently, all but abandoned. Turquoise Mountain is helping to bring these activities back to life at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Afghanistan’s premier vocational training institution for arts and crafts. Students receive a world-class education in some of Afghanistan’s most culturally rich crafts. They can select from disciplines such as woodwork, jewelry and gem cutting, ceramics, calligraphy, or miniature painting. Around 15 artisans are selected for each craft every year. The students learn from some of Afghanistan’s most renowned and skilled master craftsmen, thus reviving the traditional practice of knowledge transmission from master to pupil. At the end of three intensive years of training, students at the institute graduate with a City & Guilds accreditation that is internationally recognized.

  1. Turquoise Mountain completely revitalized an at-risk historic district.

Looking now at the magnificent setting of the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul’s historic Murad Khani district—once an ancient silver bazaar—it’s hard to imagine that just a few short years ago the entire area was buried under several meters of accumulated garbage. (Not surprisingly, the district was featured on the World Monuments Fund Watch List, which keeps track of the world’s most endangered historic sites). Turquoise Mountain worked to completely restore Murad Khani, digging through the garbage to reveal the beautiful centuries-old structures and courtyards below. The process was also a learning opportunity for artisans, focusing on the traditional skills of architectural woodwork and mud-plastering. Today, the beautifully restored old city is a vibrant artistic and economic hub.

  1. Turquoise Mountain plays an important community role.

The Murad Khani district is not only the home of the Turquoise Mountain Institute, it’s also an established community of long-term residents. Community development was an integral part of Turquoise Mountain’s restoration activities in the area. In partnership with the Murad Khani community, Turquoise Mountain has worked to provide employment, education, and healthcare programs to local residents, including a public school and an out-of-school education center that is free of charge. The Firuzkuh Family Health Center, which focuses on maternal and child health, welcomes thousands of patients every year. The center also hosts regular events and gatherings where the entire community can come together and celebrate their culture. Due to Turquoise Mountain’s work, and the active presence of the institute, residents of Murad Khani are feeling a renewed sense of pride in their district and their community.

  1. Work from Turquoise Mountain has been exhibited internationally.

One of Turquoise Mountain’s main goals is to train artists in Afghanistan and revitalize the country’s arts and crafts industry. The organization also believes in the importance of international connections. As a result, Turquoise Mountain works hard to showcase the work of its students and artisans not only at home, but also on the global stage. The work of Turquoise Mountain artisans has been exhibited in Bahrain, Qatar, Italy, the UK, and, most recently at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. In addition, Turquoise Mountain works to find international buyers and retailers for its artisans’ work. Some of the individuals and organizations that Turquoise Mountain has partnered with include Kate Spade Fifth Avenue and London’s five-star Connaught Hotel.

  1. Turquoise Mountain by the numbers.

Some of the most important statistics associated with Turquoise Mountain are:

  • 112—The number of historic buildings, such as those in Murad Khani, that Turquoise Mountain has restored worldwide. (Turquoise Mountain operates in Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.)
  • 36,000—The number of cubic meters of garbage that were excavated from the Murad Khani district during the old city restoration project.
  • $5 million—The dollar value of traditional crafts that have been sold through Turquoise Mountain to international markets and customers.
  • 1,100—The number of artisans who have received training in the restoration of heritage buildings (including activities such as traditional architectural woodworking) through working on Turquoise Mountain restoration projects.
  • 80%—The percentage of Turquoise Mountain Institute graduates who go on to own their own businesses (entrepreneurship and business training are an important part of the Turquoise Mountain curriculum, in addition to craft work).
  • 17,000—The number of patients who obtain primary health care annually through Turquoise Mountain’s community development projects and health care initiatives.
  • 10,000—The number of artisans whose lives that Turquoise Mountain aims to transform over the next decade.

Can NEI Solve the Problem of Malnutrition in Afghanistan?

mantoo foodAccording to research from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), malnutrition is a major problem in Afghanistan. Approximately one-third of the country’s population isn’t getting enough calories on a daily basis, and about 20% of Afghans aren’t getting enough protein. The figures for malnutrition in children are even more troubling: more than 40% of Afghan children under five years old are stunted (or smaller than the average for their age), which is one of the world’s highest rates of childhood stunting. In addition, 10% of Afghan children are acutely malnourished, and thousands of children die every year because they don’t have access to adequate food and nutrition.

Childhood malnutrition naturally has serious consequences for physical development, but it can also lead to problems with cognitive development and educational achievement. Without the nutrients needed for healthy brain development and functioning, many malnourished children struggle with learning issues throughout their lives, even into adulthood. This is a particular challenge for a country like Afghanistan, which is working hard to increase literacy rates and education levels as part of its post-conflict rebuilding process.

With child health experts calling for greater nutritional investment in Afghanistan, a number of NGOs are stepping in to help tackle malnutrition and the underlying causes of Afghanistan’s food insecurity. Nutrition & Education International (NEI) is one such example: a non-profit organization that is working to promote soybean cultivation and nourishment in Afghanistan in association with local government agencies, universities, and the WFP. Read on to learn more about NEI’s work and its history in Afghanistan.

What is NEI?

NEI logoNEI is a non-profit organization on a mission to eradicate malnutrition in Afghanistan with a surprising weapon: soybeans.

Containing nine essential amino acids, soybeans are a rich source of protein and other nutrients, making them excellent fighters against malnutrition, which is essentially synonymous with protein deficiency. In addition, soybeans are a cost-effective crop to grow, and so are relatively easy to incorporate into Afghanistan’s agricultural practices.

NEI’s primary objective is to help Afghanistan establish a self-sustaining soybean industry by developing a full soybean value chain. The idea is that by introducing seed multiplication, soybean cultivation and processing, and soy market development, NEI can help poor families improve both their nutrition and their economic circumstances. According to NEI’s president, Steven Kwon, a functioning soy economy is one of the most practical remedies to address Afghanistan’s ongoing struggle with chronic malnutrition.

A history of NEI in Afghanistan

2003—Steven Kwon makes his first visit to Afghanistan. Soon after, he develops the soy nutrition initiative and establishes Nutrition & Education International as a non-profit NGO.

2004—Six varieties of non-GMO soybeans are successfully cultivated and tested in Afghanistan’s Balkh province.

2005—Following the successful testing of NEI’s soy program in 12 different Afghan provinces, the government of Afghanistan adopts the program as a national project.

2006—For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, 1,000 tons of soybeans are produced through the efforts of more than 2,000 Afghan farmers across nine provinces. In addition, two soy milk processing facilities are established, and NEI begins its humanitarian soy milk distribution program, which delivers nutrition-rich soy milk to 3,000 high-risk families.

2007—Soybean production expands; more than 3,000 farmers across 15 provinces are now cultivating soybeans.

2008—Three more soy milk processing facilities are established, as is a containerized soy flour factory.

2009—Soybean production expands beyond agricultural operations to include home and community gardens, thus helping individual families and small communities supplement their protein intake independently. NEI’s soy milk distribution program is now reaching 5,000 families, and a newly initiated winter soy nutrition campaign provides 100 tons of soybeans and soy flour to 2,500 high-risk families in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.

2010—NEI purchases and distributes 100 metric tons of soybean seeds to farmers in 21 provinces; by this time, Afghan farmers are producing enough soybeans to sustain their own families. Afghanistan’s first-ever soy flour factory is built in Kabul with a capacity of 300 metric tons. NEI also increases its efforts to create a soy market in the country by launching its business arm, Soybean Nutrition Services Afghanistan (SNSA), and concentrates on providing seed resources, training farmers, and further developing the market for soy. A grant from the government of Japan enables NEI to pursue these aims.

2011—Three more soy flour factories are built, and NEI receives a second grant for its soybean production project from the Japanese government.

2012—NEI enters into a partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme to promote soybean cultivation in 100 districts across 20 provinces. More than 6,000 new farmers are trained in soybean cultivation, and 2,000 metric tons of soybeans are produced.

2013—NEI celebrates a decade of work in Afghanistan, and commits to a further 10 years of developing Afghanistan’s soybean industry in order to eradicate malnutrition.

2014—Two more soy processing facilities are established. NEI receives a grant for its work from the Republic of Korea.

2015—NEI’s founder meets formally with the President of Afghanistan to discuss the future of Afghanistan’s soybean industry.

2016—Construction on a sterilized soy milk factory is completed. 17,000 new soybean farmers are trained in 31 provinces, and soybean production reaches a record high of 6,000 metric tons.

Spotlight on the Asia Society: Introducing the World to Afghanistan

The Asia Society is the world’s leading educational organization dedicated to fostering mutual understanding, respect, and partnership between Western and Asian countries, including Afghanistan and other countries of the Greater Middle East. Read on to learn more about the Asia Society, and how it’s helping the world get to know Afghanistan.

What is the Asia Society?

Asia Society logoThe Asia Society is a non-profit, non-partisan institution with a broad mission to prepare Asians and Americans for a shared future in a global context. Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller III, the Asia Society has grown over the years to become an international, cross-disciplinary organization, working across the fields of arts, culture, education, business, and policy to generate ideas and insight, address present challenges, and prepare for a collaborative future. Today, the Asia Society’s focus covers more than 50 countries and territories—the Society has major centers and offices in cities ranging from Houston and Los Angeles to Manila and Mumbai—making it one of the most important contributors to the ongoing conversation about Asian-American relations.

What does the Asia Society do?

The Asia Society’s scope of activity is extremely broad. A sampling of the Society’s work and initiatives includes: the Center for Global Education, which brings world leaders and institutions together to tackle the urgent question of how to educate today’s students for employability in a global era; the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank that addresses major policy challenges for the Asia-Pacific region by working with top experts and policymakers; the Asia Arts Awards, a signature event that honors transformative figures in Asia’s contemporary art world; and the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative, an ongoing collaborative dialogue aiming to foster the development and sharing of urban sustainability strategies among Asia-Pacific communities.

How is the Asia Society helping the world get to know Afghanistan?

As one of the Asia Society’s focus countries, Afghanistan is an important presence in much of the Society’s work. Some specific ways that the Asia Society is bringing Afghanistan to the world’s attention and building awareness about how Afghanistan is developing include:

Creative Voices of Islam in AsiaCreative Voices of Muslim Asia—The Asia Society’s Creative Voices of Muslim Asia is an innovative multidisciplinary program that works to build understanding of the diversity of Islam through the arts. The initiative incorporates Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas, a collaborative festival and the first festival of Muslim arts to be held in New York City. There’s also a youth media exchange program that helps connect young people with digital storytelling opportunities that allow them to participate in critical dialogue around important issues like globalization and immigration. Creative Voices of Muslim Asia also sponsors a regular series of online publications and features that showcase important artistic voices and perspectives from Afghanistan and other Muslim countries and regions.

The Arts & Museum Summit—First launched in 2015, this summit is a valuable opportunity for museum and arts leaders from across Asia and the Middle East, the US, and Europe to connect, explore challenges, and share knowledge. At the inaugural summit in 2015, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, the founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, was a key panel member in a discussion on threats and risks to the arts in contemporary Asia.

The Asia Game Changer Awards—Launched by the Asia Society in 2014, the Asia Game Changer Awards aim to fill a critical gap by identifying and celebrating leaders in all fields who are making profound and positive contributions to the future of Asia. In 2016, Afghanistan’s Dr. Ahmad Sarmast was honored for his commitment to bringing music back to Afghanistan in the face of extreme violence and threats. Read more about Dr. Sarmast’s remarkable work and legacy here.

Does the Asia Society organize initiatives within Afghanistan?

While much of the Asia Society’s work involving Afghanistan is intended to help the rest of the world learn about the country, the Society does support some initiatives taking place in Afghanistan. Chief among these is the Afghanistan Young Leaders Initiative (AYLI), a program designed to build and nurture the next generation of Afghan leaders. Operating under the broader umbrella of the Asia 21 Young Leaders Initiative, AYLI annually selects a number of promising Afghan citizens under the age of 40 to become a “young Afghan leader” for a one-year term.

As part of their term, AYLI members participate in monthly meetings to discuss Afghanistan’s main challenges and how the next generation of leaders can help solve them; develop a next-generation curriculum for leadership development workshops that can be delivered to Afghan university students; and work with a media consultant to develop a media outreach strategy highlighting the work of young Afghan leaders. In addition, participants attend the Afghan Young Leaders in Action Youth Summit, an annual forum that helps AYLI members make key connections and assess their progress as a group.