For Fakhria Ibrahimi Momtaz, finding clients for her tech company was just a tiny, first step. It was 2010 and Momtaz’ startup, Momtaz Host, had just registered with the government. Even that had taken several months. Now, as she traveled Kabul visiting local and international companies, the question was not what she could do for them, but what technology could do at all.
“There were so many difficulties,” she told Red Herring recently, having built Momtaz, alongside husband Reza, into one of Afghanistan’s most promising internet startups. “In the first three years it felt like a trial – we were just talking about our services. Clients didn’t have the knowledge of technology. And ISPs weren’t so active anyway.”
Momtaz, offers domain hosting services, web design, web development, email provision and internet security packages. Not only has it been part of a vanguard of Afghan tech firms cementing their place in a nascent market – but it is one of a growing number of projects founded by women, in a country whose gender politics has made frequent headlines for all the wrong reasons.
1996 was a catastrophe for thousands of women in the Afghan capital city, home to almost 3.7 million people. That year the Taliban rolled into town, imposing their strict Sharia law on the city. Overnight female dreams of entrepreneurship were dashed.
The ensuing civil war pushed Momtaz out of the country, settling instead in Peshawar, in neighboring Pakistan. Reza, meanwhile, left to study in Tehran. It was only well after that conflict, and during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, that they returned to Kabul, got married and looked for business ideas.
“I was a student of medicine and my husband has a master’s degree in landscaping,” she says. “We decided that technology is the power.” By 2013, she added, things in Kabul had changed: companies, and the government, knew more about tech, and what it could do to streamline business. “It was like a storm – a storm of projects, activity.”
The proliferation of international companies also helped, she says. That year Momtaz made $80,000. Considering the average monthly IT salary in the country is a little over $1,000, it was good business.
Momtaz says, “We have normal times now. We lost some customers. But on the other hand there are many new clients. Also now we feel that our clients have more knowledge of our services. Our marketing is by our clients. Our clients bring us new clients.”
At first, Momtaz says, she was almost alone among Afghan women in pursuing a life helming her own tech company. Women and girls “were afraid of technology. Many girls are afraid to study computer science or engineering everywhere. But it is more difficult here because of the cultural issues, and women’s families are not accepting that their girls work in these fields.”
Things are still tough today, in a nation riven across conservative social and cultural traditions. But change is happening. And a raft of projects are allowing a proliferation of female-led companies, in a sector experts say is far more open than others.
In 2012 10,000 women attended a Women for Business Management program in Kabul. A year later the Project Artemis program, held in Phoenix, Arizona, focused on developing female Afghan business talent.
Roia Shefayee is a principal and founder at Wellspring Advisers in Palo Alto. Since 2012 she has been heavily involved in developing Kabul’s startup scene with the Founders Institute (FI).
“I wanted to go back and do something in Afghanistan, not just from a human rights but an economic perspective,” Shefayee says. “And there’s such a huge population of young folks there, and they’re all looking to be educated, to make the country a better place.”
The FI has run a four-month entrepreneurship program since October 2014, which allows young Afghans the chance to graduate by launching their own company with the help of mentorship and funds. 40 signed up for the first program, of which only four graduated.
This February, the Institute’s second generation finished their course. Just two made the grade. Both were women. One, TechAfghanistan, is a tech news site operated by Indian-born Kamini Menon. Course.af, founded by Elham Kohistani, and offers access to a range of higher learning programs across the country.
Elsewhere an app to alert police to harassment of women has been developed, and a widely used blood donation app, Weena, was also the brainchild of a female Kabulian. Netlinks, the fastest growing IT company in Afghanistan, has employed dozens of women to develop a recent project alongside USAID, the U.S.’ foreign aid arm.
“I can tell you from the FI experience, that there’s still more men coming to our events,” says Shefayee. “I’d say maybe on average about 15-20% would be women, sometimes less. Some of this is to do with the fact that we hold our events in the evening, which creates problems with security. So I am hoping we have a better representation. I think you do see both women and men in this industry.”
More generally, tech in Afghanistan is going through something of a mini-renaissance. Startup Grind, Unreasonable Labs and Startup Weekend have all visited the capital (almost the entire scene is based in Kabul), while groups like iHub Afghanistan, Code Weekend and Kabul Startup Founder 101 have brought together an ecosystem that was previously disparate, and largely single players working out of home, cafes or restaurants.
Even Afghanistan’s beleaguered government has cottoned on to the craze, setting up an incubator called Ibtikar. Things are looking up.
Education has played a big role. “If you were there 5-8 years ago, you’d see lots of wedding halls being built,” says Shefayee. “In the past two years as I’ve been going back, I’ve seen a lot more higher education buildings going up. Now education is big business, and there are a lot of people graduating from those places.”
In March DAFTAR became the first coworking space to open in Kabul, offering a desk and full suite of office services for just $250 per month. That is a big deal, says local entrepreneur Hasib Tareen, whose costs would otherwise have run to around $1,000 a month, pricing many out of the industry.
“In the past two years, tech has become a very popular business for females as well as males,” says designer Tareen. “It’s also about security at DAFTAR. If I’m a female in a restaurant I might not feel comfortable to work around people who are eating and going out. The coworking space gives people more security.”
That security is key, agrees Hakim Ahmadi of Rasatak.af, a Kabul-based mobile services provider. Tech is “a business environment where some part of it can be done in the virtual world,” he says. “The actual outside market is still a man-dominated market – I would not deny that. Let’s compare it with construction. Since construction is 99.9% male-dominated, because there is so much interaction with engineers, carpenters and others, it’s hard for women to work as leaders, or at least as a high-profile member of the company.
“But IT is modern and a new industry here, women can play flexible roles,” he adds. “If you go back to universities, you see lots of women graduating in science, and more women in IT classes. So that gives an open environment for women to open businesses.”
Momtaz, who is also a passionate photographer and filmmaker, has been busy trying to raise awareness of women in Afghan tech. She has worked with Funder’s Network for Afghan Women as a local coordinator and has worked for Canadian Women for Women of Afghanistan as a consultant. She has also helped run Peace Through Business, a wing of the Institute of Economic Empowerment for Women (IEEW).
Afghanistan is still experiencing tough times, as it emerges from violence, sectarianism and political strife. Momtaz hopes that women like her can grab at the country’s growing number of opportunities, and make headways in an industry ripe for change. “There are so many changes, and women can have their own businesses today,” she says. “That is a big change now.”