Few tech hubs are hidden behind concrete blast walls, barbed wire and a team of gun-toting security guards. There again this is Kabul’s – and Afghanistan’s – first ever coworking space. Berlin this most definitely is not.
But beyond the defenses DAFTAR – which means ‘Office’ in Dari, the predominant local tongue – is a vastly ambitious project aimed not just at harnessing Kabul’s small but growing startup community. It wants to change Afghanistan’s economy altogether.
The space, a subsidiary of the 2012-founded Afghanistan Center for Excellence (ACE), opened just two months ago. It has room for eight desks, four of which have been taken and four that are being negotiated. Upstairs there is a converted terrace and office space. There is also a meeting room and kitchen for fresh coffee. Desks start at $175. Microsoft’s local rep and an environmental consultant are two of DAFTAR’s current tenants. Many more are waiting.
Below deck, co-founder Suleman Fatimie showed me, there is a small, Edison bulb-lit ‘quiet room’ where clients can escape for some alone time. Fatimie raps his hand on the door: it’s also a bunker, “in case the worst happens.”
15 years after the US-led invasion, the situation in Afghanistan has stagnated. Its politics has advanced little, the economy is torpid and the Taliban is making an improbable return, attacking people in the 3.7 million-population capital and beyond.
Security, therefore, is rarely far from peoples’ minds, though the city lives vibrantly from day to day. The instability has created a “survival instinct”, said Fatimie, that has stymied business success. “People don’t look beyond the next year,” he said, stroking a carefully-trimmed beard. “In many cases, beyond the next month.
“In Afghanistan unfortunately, and it’s because of that survival mode we’re in, you come up with an idea and people replicate it,” he added. “If you have a phone shop, people make a line of phone shops. The economy requires innovative ideas that can transform it, instead of the traditional model of copying everything.”
It has taken a long time for startups to become part of any conversation in Afghanistan, in which just 12.3% of its 32m people have regular access to the Internet (only 34% can read). That has not been helped by a brain drain of which Fatimie himself was a part, during the late 1990s, when the Taliban ruled during a bloody civil war.
Fatimie fled first to neighboring Pakistan before studying in Cairo and London. It was while visiting a friends’ coworking space in the US that the idea for DAFTAR first arrived. He told me, “I saw what it provided in terms of an ecosystem. We had some space so we decided to use it.”
The ACE already employs almost 200 people across Afghanistan’s five major cities: Kabul; Herat; Mazar-e-Sharif; Kandahar and Jalalabad. It also recently opened a bakery, called KHANAGi, which serves fresh, wholegrain bread, chutneys, jams and other local food each day. It has 11 staff.
But Fatimie wanted more. “We realized there’s a very strong interest from the Afghan youth, especially the young, educated community, for startups and starting innovative businesses,” he said. With groups such as Founder Institute, Startup Grind, Unreasonable Institute and government-backed Ibtikar, it seemed that tech was on the up.
Other promising factors include widespread 3G services (this reporter can confirm that Kabul at least rivals Berlin for mobile browsing speed) and a $2 billion investment in high-speed optical fiber. “In the past six months there has been a lot of hype around startups, so there have been a lot of private initiatives, and donor initiatives to help these startups,” Fatimie said.
“We think there’s a niche market here, and we want to be there to see what happens in five to six years,” he added. “Hopefully they will make a buck out of it, and we will make a buck out of it. But we’d like to remain a bit more socially responsible to the community. We try as much as possible to give back to the community.”
And that is vital given Afghanistan’s soaring unemployment, and vulnerability of its youth to insurgents like the Taliban and other mafias ripping money from tax coffers. ACE is planning a small funding scheme to begin July alongside Afghanistan Needs You, a campaign committed to stemming the country’s brain drain.
“The youth, for us, are a ticking time bomb,” Fatimie told me. “If you don’t provide them the platform to do something here, they will become a destructive force, unfortunately. Or they will leave, which also impacts us.”
For Hasib Tareen, a graphic designer who uses the space, its money-saving facilities are precious. “I have an idea,” he posited. “If I go to an apartment to start it, that will cost me from $300-500 per month, plus $50 electricity, plus $200 office expenses and maybe $100 my transportation. So a coworking space provides everything – equipment, printer, scanner, Internet, coffee and lunch for $250 per month.”
Later Fatimie takes me outside the office to a shipping container his team has turned into a multi-purpose space. To the left is a small prayer room, beside a meeting room and mini-gym that’s open from 6am til 10pm. It’s tough to get fit in Kabul, he tells me.
In fact it’s hard to get around at all. Kabul is one of the region’s most chaotic traffic hotspots, and it’s not uncommon to get stuck in a jam for over an hour. Fatimie is therefore looking at branching into other spaces across town.
Beyond that, DAFTAR is hoping to launch its second space, in the western city of Herat, by the end of this year’s third quarter. Next up would be the ancient Silk Road city of Mazar-e-Sharif. It is wildly ambitious. But in Fatimie the group has a leader with global experience, and obvious vision.
“He’s building his social capital,” Lauryn Oates, a locally-based consultant told me. “He’s helping all these startups now, but it will come back to him.”
Beside the prayer room sits an open-air volleyball court in case clients want to blow off some steam – two at a time, preferably. Next to that is the embassy of Turkmenistan, whose gun towers and giant fortifications remind that this is no ordinary spot. It took me half an hour longer to find the location. In Kabul directions are rough, and west-facing companies rarely advertise. “If they put up a sign,” my driver told me as we arrived, “they will be a target.”
Fatimie is no fantasist but he has a more halcyon vision of what Kabul, and Afghanistan, may become – both in business and politics. “Coworking spaces in the context of Afghanistan are very new, because the culture is to have your own office – the president, vice president, everyone is on their own,” he said. “But I think people will realize that an interactive atmosphere is what can lead you to work with more clients, more companies.
DAFTAR sits on the edge of the Darul Aman Road, a chasmic boulevard that connects downtown Kabul with the Darul Aman Palace, built in the 1920s, whose bombed-out facade has served as a constant, conspicuous reminder to Kabulis of the violence that was, and sometimes still is, quotidian.
Just this past week, however, plans were unveiled to restore the palace to its former glories, a symbol of a new Afghanistan – one from which its youth will not run. Fatimie believes that DAFTAR can be a key part of that change.
“Hopefully the bad days are behind us, and there are some very smart kids and a huge population coming out of university and ready to do something,” he said. “This obsession with the startups will hopefully lead to innovative ideas, grounded into the realities of Afghanistan.”
“It gives a boost to our economy. So let’s do it.”