Times are tough in Kabul. Just as the Afghan city was becoming used to a period of relative quiet a bomb blast, claimed by ISIS, claimed more than 80 lives at a peaceful protest. Then, last week, militants opened fire at the city’s American University, killing 13 people including seven students.
The message, from those aiming to destabilize the city, is clear: education, and innovation, are not to be tolerated. But despite the horror young Afghans will not be denied a future that appears arguably brighter than it has been since the American-led war began, in 2001.
In 2002 only a million males attended school; women and girls were banned. Now nine million Afghans of both genders study. And that is helping breed a new generation of entrepreneurs that could help the country transition from aid dependency to a market economy.
Until recently there has not been much in the way of infrastructure for those wanting to try their hand at a tech startup. Ahmad Fahim Didar has played a key role in changing that. A former agriculture ministry employee, he left a role at Toyota to found Aghaez Consulting Services in March 2014.
This summer Red Herring met Didar at a gaudily-lit Turkish restaurant in the heart of Kabul. He was upbeat about the city’s tiny tech scene. Part of that optimism came from Startup Grind, the global events brand that came to Kabul, under his directorship, in 2015.
Since then Didar has overseen four Startup Grind dates, with a fifth planned for September 17th in Mazar-e-Sharif, a city in Afghanistan’s northeast. Startup Grind has been a wild success, Didar said: so much so, he has struggled to cope with its fallout.
This website visited Kabul’s first coworking space, DAFTAR, during that trip. Didar is opening its second. Startup Valley is a space in which Afghan entrepreneurs can enjoy the services of an incubator, as well as Didar’s network of tech professionals.
“We are entering the next phase of the program early than it was anticipated,” said Didar. “After each event of Startup Grind we get a number of inquiries. Until now they were small and we could manage them in our Aghaez office. But since the fourth event was organized the number of inquiries are huge. This paved the road for the arrival of Startup Valley.”
Startup Valley members will gain an office space, mentorship and the chance to meet others in their field – opportunities afforded almost everyone in Silicon Valley’s rarified surroundings. But in febrile Kabul, upon whose streets great concrete blast walls are thrust daily, they are luxuries.
Startup Valley Kabul already caters to five companies. Didar hopes to unveil spaces in four more Afghan provinces by the beginning of next year. It is just in time, he reckons.
“Since the transaction economy period is now completed in Afghanistan, and as we are turning to market economy, the proliferation of startups are natural,” said Didar. “However there need to be very well thought-through programs in order to develop the environment and ecosystem for the SMEs to operate more cohesively, and through standard business practices, in order to have sustainable SME companies formed.”
In Afghanistan little can be taken for granted, not least entrepreneurship. But the locals are determined. And with help from Didar, DAFTAR and others, there will be much better times ahead.