Connie Duckworth set up Arzu in Bamyan and Faryab provinces in Afghanistan in 2004, after visiting the country the year before as a member of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, a bi-partisan commission formed to insure Afghan women a voice in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
Arzu trains women to make rugs in their homes and sell them in flagship stores. Proceeds from the sale of these rugs go straight to fair wages for all Arzu workers as well as a range of social projects, rather than going to investors or shareholders.
Arzu, which means “hope” in Dari, is an innovative model of social entrepreneurship that helps Afghan women weavers and their families break the cycle of poverty by providing them steady income and access to education and healthcare by sourcing and selling the rugs they weave. Arzu uses private sector practices to create jobs in desperately poor rural villages where little opportunity exists.
In just seven years, the company has grown from 30 to 700 weavers, in 13 villages, spanning two religious sects and four ethnic groups. More than 1,000 jobs have been created, and trained an all-Afghan staff to carry out local security operations.
Employees must send their children to school full-time, women are required to attend literacy classes for two hours every day.
Weavers receive a fair wage and the chance of a 50% bonus for high-grade work.
The women are paid directly, in plain sight of their families – Duckworth adds that this has shifted the cultural balance as a result.
Arzu also keep a keen eye on their carbon footprint, heating workshops by burning briquettes made out of shredded paper from the US Embassy. Any leftovers are given to the local government offices.
A Thomson Reuters survey named Afghanistan the worst place on earth to be a woman. Gender segregation, violence against women, poor access to healthcare and extreme poverty – as well as a 10-year-old war – all play their part. Add to that a lack of infrastructure, religious and ethnic tensions as well as widespread corruption, Arzu’s achievements are truly impressive.
In 2008, the company won the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, and last year was recognized at the Edison Awards for ‘Best new Product in the Lifestyle and Social Impact’ category.
Duckworth adds, “I have always viewed community development and international development from a business perspective. You have to develop local, small basic grassroots activity or you don’t have a shot for peace.”