Navigating Through Conflict

Gayle Lemmon discusses how entrepreneurs conduct business in some of the world's most difficult and dangerous environments.

May 14, 2012

| by Michele Chandler


The 80s and 90s ushered in the downfall of communism and the Berlin Wall. Now the world watches Arab Spring uprisings from citizens demanding democracy across the Middle East. Gayle Lemmon, Deputy Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on entrepreneurship in Afghanistan, has studied and written extensively on hurdles and opportunities in countries emerging from these sorts of radical changes. She spoke during a May panel titled “Entrepreneurship and New Economics” during the Global Crossroads conference, which was sponsored by the Center for Global Business and the Economy. Excerpts:

How has technology changed entrepreneurship in countries emerging from instability and war?

I think Afghanistan in 2001 had less than 1% phone penetration. Now you have 60% to 80% network penetration and more than 50% of households have access to at least 1 mobile phone. The challenges are enormous because the power and the infrastructure and the roads are simply not there. But one of the best things that I think the Afghan government and international community did was to put almost no regulation in that telephone arena at the very beginning, and you’ve seen increased innovation and young people who are using it to really think about where their businesses are going to go, where their economic opportunities are going to come from, and connecting to the outside world in a way that a decade ago was really shockingly foreign. To be able to use Skype, and there are 250,000 Afghan kids on Facebook? It’s not an insignificant number, if you think about the literacy rate.

You have focused on Afghanistan and recently traveled to Liberia to interview businesspeople. Describe some of the entrepreneurs you met.

Oftentimes when we are talking about entrepreneurship, we immediately think about guys and Silicon Valley. What you see on the ground are people who found that when very little else is left to them, business is a lifeline for both men and women in places like Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Bosnia. In Afghanistan, where I’ve spent the most time, entrepreneurs on the ground are running small and medium enterprises that absolutely no one was paying attention to. Everyone automatically filed women under ‘microfinance,’ so women who were tending to run small and medium enterprises were being completely overlooked or dismissed as aberrations. I wrote this book recently, a true story about a girl who, when the Taliban came, ended up becoming an entrepreneur who ran a dressmaking business that about 100 families around her neighborhood survived upon during those years because they managed to build this workshop that created a network of local shopkeepers. That really got me hooked, because for every one story like that, there are probably several thousand you haven’t heard of in each one of those countries.

How did having to navigate conflict zones impact these women and men?

The entrepreneurs are used to some of the most problematic business environments in the world. They are used to constant reinvention and going around obstacles. They are very rarely stuck in one model of business — they are trying to get business done by whatever means necessary. I do think that gives them a flexibility and adaptability you don’t necessarily see in other environments. When people are so used to having fewer obstacles, they are flummoxed by one or two challenges. When they are used to challenges on a daily basis, they are always finding ways to work around them.


What are the standout lessons from Afghanistan that could help emerging entrepreneurs in other former conflict zones?

The challenges are the same regardless of region — access to finance, access to markets, and access to networks and skills. I think what Afghanistan shows is there is a role for helping entrepreneurs to find markets. And, if the international community is already in a country, they can do a lot to help stimulate businesses at the outset by, instead of outsourcing the business to foreign firms, they give it to local companies. Then you are helping the local business community. So many times, the international community either sources immediately outside the country or hires foreigners to do work that perhaps could be locally produced.

What happened to Kamila Sidiqi, the woman detailed in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, your 2011 book about the unlikely entrepreneur who mobilized her community after the Taliban seized Afghanistan in 1996?

The dressmaking stopped as soon as the Taliban left. The reason why they were doing dresses is they couldn’t do much of anything else. But once the Taliban left, a lot of them went back to school and some of them moved away. She started her business. She is running a consultancy now, a company in Kabul that teaches people entrepreneurship skills around the country. She is teaching other Afghans, both literate and illiterate. She recently completed a contract to conduct trainings around the country on how to think about a business opportunity, how to do marketing, how to price a good or service. She has 13 people working for her.

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