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I arrived in Bamiyan on a dusty Sunday morning, in search of the province’s start-up businesses for a documentary on entrepreneurship in Afghanistan.

I had planned to spend two months in country, scouting for the start-ups to feature and putting together a pitch tape for producers. Bamiyan was my first scouting trip. I chose it because of the fascinating tourism development initiatives taking place, including the Afghan Ski Challenge and the country’s first national park; because of its reputation as one of the most secure provinces in Afghanistan; and (to be perfectly honest) because it is home to the Hazara people, for whom I am regularly mistaken.

I had no idea what I would find in Bamiyan, and at first glance at least, I did not find start-ups. At least none that fit into my pre-conceived notions, which were heavily influenced by the tech start-up model of Silicon Valley.

According to Paul Graham, one of the most revered thought leaders in tech-start-up-landia, start-ups are different from small businesses in their focus on a scalable product. Product-based – as opposed to service-based – is key because it means the potential to scale, and scaling is key because the very term “start-up” implies exponential growth.

In the United States, meanwhile, initiatives like Start-Up America promote the idea that entrepreneurship is the key to economic development and job creation, especially in a down economy.

But in Bamiyan, neither of those models seem to hold.

The local economy is still largely agrarian, with endless potato fields producing the best tubers in all of Afghanistan. NGOs and “civil society” play a huge role in the local social and economic fabric. Project funds and implementation pump millions into the local economy, providing not only jobs, but also careers for educated Bamiyanis to aspire to.

Indeed, international organizations and the NGOs that they support seem to serve as the backbone of Bamiyan. The Agha Khan Foundation, widely perceived as one of the most effective development organizations in Afghanistan today, is behind many of the economic development initiatives in Bamiyan, including eco-tourism, infrastructure projects, and small business support. Meanwhile, the development unit of UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan) focuses on basic capacity building projects for local NGOs in several key sectors.

The pervasiveness of NGOs is reflected in the work of the Bamiyan Department of the Economy. Despite its name, it does not focus on general economic issues, but rather on NGO coordination. “For private sector,” said one official I spoke to, “talk to the Chamber of Commerce.” Unfortunately, we were unable to coordinate a time to meet. (“Not surprising,” one international organization’s staff member said, “They are never in their offices.”)

Despite my difficulty in finding start-ups – which were probably too narrowly defined to begin with – I had no difficulty finding entrepreneurialism in Bamiyan. In fact, the province was teeming with entrepreneurs.

The official at the Department of the Economy, a twenty-something with the confident carriage of a man much older, was one example. He had studied economics at university and became a civil servant out of a desire to serve. But such a job came at a price – a much lower pay than an NGO or private sector job – and so he worked on numerous side projects as well. He listed “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” as his favorite book, taught web design and programming in his spare time, and dreamed of the day that he could start his own business.

Then there was the UN staff member, who had come in to work on his day off to help me find start-ups. “The problem with entrepreneurship in Bamiyan,” he said, “is a lack of expertise,” and he told me his story to illustrate the point.

He had once bought an egg incubation machine, hoping to fill a need in Bamiyan for fresh poultry and eggs. But he could not find anyone in the province that knew how to operate the machine optimally, nor could he find the knowledge in Kabul. Eventually, he traveled to Islamabad, where he met with men in the poultry business who convinced him his business idea was much more difficult to implement than simply buying the equipment. They tried to persuade him to import baby chicks from Pakistan instead, “but imagine trying to transport live animals – baby chickens – from Pakistan to Bamiyan,” he laughed.

And then there were the aspiring Bpeace Fast Runners, all of whom I had met without knowing that they had applied to the program. I met three – two of whom worked in media and one in tourism. All of them impressed me enormously in different ways.  (They will be traveling to the U.S. in April 2013 through Bpeace's apprenticeship program supported by the U.S. Department of State.)

In fact, my host for the week was Bpeace Fast Runner Gul Hussein.  Gul runs a bed-and-breakfast in Bamiyan (perhaps the only one in country), a national travel agency, and is the go-to travel and logistics coordinator for the international community in Bamiyan. He was one of the key organizers of the Afghan Ski Challenge; has everyone’s number from the governor to the local radio personalities in his phone; and, from everything that I saw, is the most successful entrepreneur in the province. Like many of the other entrepreneurs that I met, Gul’s business was entirely self-taught and to continue to grow, he needs exposure to the global standards of the hospitality industry.

While I didn’t find the “start-ups” that I was originally looking for, I most certainly did find entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. They were different, however, and distinctly Afghan. They are side entrepreneurs and serial entrepreneurs, juggling full-time jobs with small enterprises they are patiently nurturing until the right timing. Though growth and scale are important to them, as they are anywhere, these entrepreneurs have a more long-term outlook than the exit-strategy-obsessed start-ups of New York and San Francisco. And they understand – much better than American founders – the competitive advantage of community and personal networks.

But the strongest business network in Afghanistan may actually be the one that stretches beyond its borders. Especially with the uncertainty of 2014, which one interviewee wryly described as “the end of days,” Afghanistan’s entrepreneurs need continued capital and, even more importantly, continued mentorship.


I arrived in Bamiyan on a dusty Sunday morning, in search of the province’s start-up businesses for a documentary on entrepreneurship in Afghanistan.

I had planned to spend two months in country, scouting for the start-ups to feature and putting together a pitch tape for producers. Bamiyan was my first scouting trip. I chose it because of the fascinating tourism development initiatives taking place, including the Afghan Ski Challenge and the country’s first national park; because of its reputation as one of the most secure provinces in Afghanistan; and (to be perfectly honest) because it is home to the Hazara people, for whom I am regularly mistaken.

I had no idea what I would find in Bamiyan, and at first glance at least, I did not find start-ups. At least none that fit into my pre-conceived notions, which were heavily influenced by the tech start-up model of Silicon Valley.

According to Paul Graham, one of the most revered thought leaders in tech-start-up-landia, start-ups are different from small businesses in their focus on a scalable product. Product-based – as opposed to service-based – is key because it means the potential to scale, and scaling is key because the very term “start-up” implies exponential growth.

In the United States, meanwhile, initiatives like Start-Up America promote the idea that entrepreneurship is the key to economic development and job creation, especially in a down economy.

But in Bamiyan, neither of those models seem to hold.

The local economy is still largely agrarian, with endless potato fields producing the best tubers in all of Afghanistan. NGOs and “civil society” play a huge role in the local social and economic fabric. Project funds and implementation pump millions into the local economy, providing not only jobs, but also careers for educated Bamiyanis to aspire to.

Indeed, international organizations and the NGOs that they support seem to serve as the backbone of Bamiyan. The Agha Khan Foundation, widely perceived as one of the most effective development organizations in Afghanistan today, is behind many of the economic development initiatives in Bamiyan, including eco-tourism, infrastructure projects, and small business support. Meanwhile, the development unit of UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan) focuses on basic capacity building projects for local NGOs in several key sectors.

The pervasiveness of NGOs is reflected in the work of the Bamiyan Department of the Economy. Despite its name, it does not focus on general economic issues, but rather on NGO coordination. “For private sector,” said one official I spoke to, “talk to the Chamber of Commerce.” Unfortunately, we were unable to coordinate a time to meet. (“Not surprising,” one international organization’s staff member said, “They are never in their offices.”)

Despite my difficulty in finding start-ups – which were probably too narrowly defined to begin with – I had no difficulty finding entrepreneurialism in Bamiyan. In fact, the province was teeming with entrepreneurs.

The official at the Department of the Economy, a twenty-something with the confident carriage of a man much older, was one example. He had studied economics at university and became a civil servant out of a desire to serve. But such a job came at a price – a much lower pay than an NGO or private sector job – and so he worked on numerous side projects as well. He listed “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” as his favorite book, taught web design and programming in his spare time, and dreamed of the day that he could start his own business.

Then there was the UN staff member, who had come in to work on his day off to help me find start-ups. “The problem with entrepreneurship in Bamiyan,” he said, “is a lack of expertise,” and he told me his story to illustrate the point.

He had once bought an egg incubation machine, hoping to fill a need in Bamiyan for fresh poultry and eggs. But he could not find anyone in the province that knew how to operate the machine optimally, nor could he find the knowledge in Kabul. Eventually, he traveled to Islamabad, where he met with men in the poultry business who convinced him his business idea was much more difficult to implement than simply buying the equipment. They tried to persuade him to import baby chicks from Pakistan instead, “but imagine trying to transport live animals – baby chickens – from Pakistan to Bamiyan,” he laughed.

And then there were the aspiring Bpeace Fast Runners, all of whom I had met without knowing that they had applied to the program. I met three – two of whom worked in media and one in tourism. All of them impressed me enormously in different ways.  (They will be traveling to the U.S. in April 2013 through Bpeace's apprenticeship program supported by the U.S. Department of State.)

In fact, my host for the week was Bpeace Fast Runner Gul Hussein.  Gul runs a bed-and-breakfast in Bamiyan (perhaps the only one in country), a national travel agency, and is the go-to travel and logistics coordinator for the international community in Bamiyan. He was one of the key organizers of the Afghan Ski Challenge; has everyone’s number from the governor to the local radio personalities in his phone; and, from everything that I saw, is the most successful entrepreneur in the province. Like many of the other entrepreneurs that I met, Gul’s business was entirely self-taught and to continue to grow, he needs exposure to the global standards of the hospitality industry.

While I didn’t find the “start-ups” that I was originally looking for, I most certainly did find entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. They were different, however, and distinctly Afghan. They are side entrepreneurs and serial entrepreneurs, juggling full-time jobs with small enterprises they are patiently nurturing until the right timing. Though growth and scale are important to them, as they are anywhere, these entrepreneurs have a more long-term outlook than the exit-strategy-obsessed start-ups of New York and San Francisco. And they understand – much better than American founders – the competitive advantage of community and personal networks.

But the strongest business network in Afghanistan may actually be the one that stretches beyond its borders. Especially with the uncertainty of 2014, which one interviewee wryly described as “the end of days,” Afghanistan’s entrepreneurs need continued capital and, even more importantly, continued mentorship.

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