Spotlight on the Next Generation of Afghan Tech Entrepreneurs

As Afghanistan rebuilds after years of conflict, a new wave of young, ambitious Afghans are slowly but surely revitalizing the country’s tech sector, but they’re not doing it alone. Startup Grind Afghanistan is one of a number of organizations dedicated to supporting the next generation of forward-thinking Afghan entrepreneurs and ensuring they have the tools, knowledge, and connections they need to succeed.

As a result of this help, the future is looking brighter than ever for Afghanistan-based startups. Read on to learn more.

 

What is Startup Grind Afghanistan?

startupgrindStartup Grind Afghanistan is a member of a global startup community known as Startup Grind, which is a connected network of vibrant new startups. Powered by Google for Entrepreneurs, Startup Grind was created with a mission to educate, inspire, and connect entrepreneurs around the world.

In support of this goal, the organization hosts regular events in more than 250 cities. These events bring the personal stories, life lessons, and knowledge of successful founders, innovators, educators, and investors to emerging entrepreneurs who are just starting out on their own paths to success.

Driven by the values of connecting, giving back, and helping others before helping yourself, Startup Grind now has local chapters in 350 cities worldwide. It has supported the startup journeys of more than one million entrepreneurs.

Startup Grind Afghanistan, also called Startup Grind Kabul, is Afghanistan’s local Startup Grind Chapter. It was launched by Ahmad Fahim Didar, the CEO and founder of Aghaez Consulting Group, who is passionate about entrepreneurship because it allows individuals and groups to create businesses that truly reflect their values.

Didar first conceived the idea of launching a Kabul chapter of Startup Grind in 2014. In August of that year, he contacted Startup Grind’s founder and CEO and applied to be a Startup Grind local director. Although his application was accepted, Didar wasn’t quite ready to commit at that time given Afghanistan’s tense political and economic environment. A year later, however, he dedicated himself to building a startup community in Afghanistan, and Startup Grind Afghanistan/Kabul was born.

 

How does Startup Grind Afghanistan support entrepreneurs?

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Startup Grind Afghanistan is working to build a thriving startup community in Afghanistan by showing young people that entrepreneurship is not only possible, but is a viable career choice and way of life. By sharing stories of successful entrepreneurs and providing support and tools, Ahmad Fahim Didar and Startup Grind Afghanistan want to encourage young Afghan graduates to be proactive about their own futures and the role they can play in rebuilding and revitalizing their country.

As Didar has said in previous interviews, changing young people’s mindsets from “the government needs to create jobs for Afghans” to “what can I do to create jobs at the micro level?” is one of Startup Grind Afghanistan’s most important endeavors.

Practically speaking, Startup Grind Afghanistan also offers regular events, networking opportunities, and other resources, tools, and support to emerging entrepreneurs and startups. For example, at the Startup Grind launch event, participants attended information sessions on topics covering everything from how to make the leap from having an idea to starting a company, to the benefits of working with a mentor, to practical ideas for securing startup financing.

In addition, Startup Grind Afghanistan’s regular speaker series, held on a monthly or bi-monthly basis since early 2016, features presentations from some of Afghanistan’s most successful entrepreneurs and business leaders. These include Farshid Gyashi, the founder of Afghanistan’s largest job website.

 

What do Afghan startups need and what are some of their biggest challenges?

According to Didar, the most important thing that Afghan startups need right now is inspiration and awareness. Entrepreneurs need to believe that they can succeed and attain a higher profile within the startup community, both locally and internationally. Didar also believes that facilities—like incubator and accelerator hubs and co-working spaces—are essential for giving startups not only the physical space they need to create and develop their ideas, but also the connection and support of a community of their peers.

The need for facilities links naturally to the question of the challenges faced by Afghan startups. Of these, a lack of resources for larger-scale initiatives like incubator centers and co-working facilities is one of the biggest. It should be mentioned here that a few of these facilities do currently exist. They include the DAFTAR co-working space, Afghanistan’s first ever co-working facility established by the Afghanistan Center for Excellence, and the Ibtikaar tech incubation center.

However, Didar believes many more facilities are needed to help grow the Afghan startup community, particularly in areas outside Kabul. Other challenges that affect Afghan entrepreneurs include a lack of formal government support for startups, as well as a lack of clarity in government rules and regulations, especially when it comes to taxation.

How Is the ARTF Supporting Agriculture in Afghanistan?

ARTFlogoAs one of the largest international entities funding Afghanistan’s ongoing rebuilding and development process, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) is committed to investing in projects that will make a real difference in the lives of ordinary Afghans. At present, one of the most important focus areas for ARTF support is agriculture.

Contributing 31% of Afghanistan’s GDP and employing an incredible 59% of its labor force, the agricultural sector is a critical component of Afghanistan’s future economic prosperity. Ensuring that it is properly financed is therefore a major priority for ARTF. Read on to learn more about some of the active agriculture portfolio investment projects that are currently receiving ARTF support.

 

On Farm Water Management Project

In an arid country like Afghanistan, where only about 12% of the land is arable, irrigation and water management initiatives are absolutely critical. However, years of conflict have left most of the modern irrigation systems throughout Afghanistan in a state of neglect and disrepair, making it difficult for farmers to achieve the levels of agricultural productivity needed to drive economic growth and ensure food security.

The primary objective of the On Farm Water Management Project is to enhance the efficiency of water use in targeted areas in order to improve agricultural productivity. Under the umbrella of the project, physical improvements of tertiary irrigation facilities (on individual farms) are being carried out, thus providing farmers with an improved, reliable, and equitable way to distribute irrigation water on their lands.

The project is expected to result in a 25% increase in water use efficiency in project areas and a 30% increase in the productivity of agricultural crops. In addition, water user organizations will likely be better able to carry out operations and maintenance tasks, and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock will have more capacity to plan, implement, and monitor future projects in this area.

Irrigation Rehabilitation and Development Project

Through the Irrigation Rehabilitation and Development Project, the ARTF is addressing the pressing question of irrigation and water management in Afghan agriculture on a larger scale than the On Farm Water Management Project described above. Despite recent achievements supported by other funders, there is still a huge unmet demand for irrigation rehabilitation all across Afghanistan. Prior to 1979, there were about 3.2 million hectares of irrigated area, but in 2007, that figure had fallen to just 1.8 million hectares. Between 2007 and 2011, close to 0.9 million hectares were rehabilitated, but there is still considerable work to do.

The Irrigation Rehabilitation and Development Project aims to close this gap by providing support for the rehabilitation of irrigation systems serving about 300,000 hectares of land. In addition, the project will invest in the design and construction of several small, multi-purpose dams and associated irrigation distribution systems in closed river basins. Other elements of the project include the establishment of facilities and services for hydro-meteorological work, and project management and capacity-building initiatives in several communities. The project is expected to yield a 15% increase in total irrigated area and a minimum 20% increase in crop yields in the newly rehabilitated zones.

 

National Horticulture and Livestock Project

The National Horticulture and Livestock Project works toward the ARTF’s overarching goal of increasing production of horticultural products and improving animal production and health. The main objective is to train farmers in improved production practices and to support them as they adopt these practices on an ongoing basis. Practically speaking, this involves a gradual rollout of farmer-centric agricultural services systems complemented by targeted investment support. The scope of the project has been expanding as conditions warrant, but has the capacity to serve up to 100 focus districts across 22 provinces.

Some of the expected results of the program include 6,000 hectares of rehabilitated orchards benefiting 30,000 people and the creation of 8,000 new orchards with a survival rate of at least 70%. In addition, close to 100,000 farmers will receive training in a horticulture production practice. Project managers also anticipate that 50% of targeted farmers will make regular livestock inoculation a part of their practice.

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Afghanistan Agriculture Inputs Project

The main objective of the Afghanistan Agriculture Inputs Project is to build and strengthen institutional capacity so that certified wheat seed can be sustainably produced and so that farmers can be sure the seed, pesticides, and other inputs they use are safe and reliable. With that goal in mind, the project works to boost capacity in the value chain for the production of certified wheat seed, and to prevent the marketing and sale of any pesticides and fertilizers that are banned, hazardous, sub-standard, or otherwise unreliable. The project also seeks to reduce the risk that plant quarantine pests will be introduced or spread throughout the country, and to facilitate farmers’ access to reliable, high-quality agricultural inputs. Expected results include higher annual production of certified seed, the development of an improved listing of plant quarantine pests and diseases, and testing of at least 180 product samples for pesticide residues.

What Is the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership?

With a history stretching back thousands of years and a landscape full of ancient monuments and cultural sites, Afghanistan truly is a dream destination for archaeologists. However, factors like challenging environmental conditions, transportation and accessibility issues, and security concerns also mean that the country isn’t the easiest place to conduct fieldwork.

To overcome these obstacles and continue the quest to explore Afghanistan’s treasure trove of cultural heritage, a team of resourceful, US-based archaeologists is employing a surprising new tool: satellites. Drawing on satellite imagery and other geospatial technologies, the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership is uncovering never-before-seen archaeological sites across Afghanistan and forging a new path for archaeological research and cultural heritage preservation monitoring in difficult-to-access regions. Read on to learn more about this exciting project.

 

What is the Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership?

The Afghan Heritage Mapping Partnership (AHMP) is a three-year project that aims to use imagery from satellites and other geospatial technologies to build a comprehensive database, known as a geographic information systems (GIS) database, of archaeological sites in Afghanistan. The AHMP is based at the Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes, a department at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and is supported by grants from the US State Department and the US Embassy in Kabul. Other partners working on the project include the Afghan Institute of Archaeology in Kabul and Kabul Polytechnic University.

 

How did the AHMP get started?

The AHMP was first conceived by Dr. Gil Stein, a University of Chicago archaeologist and the director of the Oriental Institute. Concerned about the impact that years of conflict, development pressures, and environmental challenges could have on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, Dr. Stein and other cultural heritage experts met with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in 2014. Ghani, who holds a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University and served as the top anthropologist for the World Bank, called for a unified and detailed effort to discover, identify, and catalog cultural relics from the country’s past; in doing so, he emphasized how critical cultural heritage is to economic development and the creation of a strong national identity. The following year, Dr. Stein’s team received a grant from the State Department, along with access to US government satellite imagery that is typically a full order of magnitude more precise than most images that are publicly available.

 

What are the goals of the AHMP?

Some of the top priorities for the AHMP team include:

Comprehensive inventory and mapping efforts—The backbone of the AHMP project is the creation of a comprehensive database of archaeological sites in Afghanistan, both those that have already been identified and cataloged (specifically, those that are listed in the Archaeological Gazetteer of Afghanistan, a 1982 publication serving as a primary resource for the AHMP project), and those that are previously unmapped. High-resolution geospatial datasets allow AHMP researchers to positively identify sites with exceptional accuracy, as well as offering important insights into how Afghanistan’s rapidly expanding cities and development projects are affecting areas of archaeological importance.

Monitoring site threats and destruction—Unfortunately, many archaeological sites in Afghanistan have already suffered as a result of conflict, looting, mining development, and urbanization. The AHMP aims to document and analyze the types and severity of destruction that have affected key archaeological sites, as well as examine areas where site preservation and protection efforts have proved effective. To accomplish these objectives, AHMP researchers work with time-based images, available through an online repository at the US State Department, to look at how sites have changed over time and to examine what risks might still be facing them.

Training Afghan researchers in the use of GIS technology—An important priority for the AHMP is providing on-the-ground training in geographic information systems (GIS) technology to Afghan archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists. To achieve this, scholars from the Oriental Institute worked with the GIS faculty at Kabul Polytechnic University, which has two GIS laboratories at its disposal. The goal of these training programs is to give archaeologists new tools to use in their work and teaching and to help introduce students in the urban planning and mining sectors to the importance of heritage preservation.

 

What discoveries have been made by the AHMP so far?

By late 2017, the AHMP had already made significant progress, with team members announcing that their work with satellite imagery had more than tripled the number of Afghan archaeological features that had previously been published. Some of the most exciting discoveries include the identification of 119 caravanserais—inns with courtyards—in the deserts of southern Afghanistan. Dated from the late 16th and early 17 centuries, these mudbrick buildings were important roadside stops for travelers along historic trade routes. The caravanserais are spaced roughly 20 kilometers from each other, which would have been about the distance that a large caravan could travel in a day.