Can Social Innovation & Social Enterprise Startups Be The Answer For A Better Afghanistan?

Like many of us I don’t have time to take a deep plunge into Afghanistan’s day-to-day economic progress, political discourse, or aspiring terror groups, so I am left with random stories, one off documentaries, and presidential debate rhetoric to educate me on the countries present and future.

The one thing you don’t hear much about when talking about Afghanistan is social innovation and social enterprise. What better place in the world to build a hub of innovation and startups then in the very place in can garner the most growth. Now, in the western world growth in startups means users, unicorns, potential market capture, and reaching that hockey stick moment when your company becomes unstoppable. All amazing things to strive for and is what has made American innovation and entrepreneurship top notch. But what about a different kind of growth? The growth that brings young people out of poverty, into the modern business world, into the digital world, into the incubator world of innovation and education.

We in the western world tend to try and bring democracy via political change, but the real change in a countries future comes from innovation in economics, business, and education. That is when citizens are introduced to the world of opportunity and a future never known before. Politics and war are the least most innovative ways to democracy the world has ever seen. Its built on destruction and red tape that destroys innovation and crushes entrepreneurship.

I am thrilled and inspired by my opportunity to speak with Azadeh Tajdar, Co-founder/Director, of Shetab – Center for Business & Social Innovation in Kabul, Afghanistan. She delivers great insight on the thirst for social innovation in the country led by the young generation that wants to transform Afghanistan into the social entrepreneurial hub of the entire region. The SHETAB (meaning ‘accelerate’ in Persian/Dari) Lab is a center for business and social innovation in Afghanistan. Their mission is to facilitate the process of creating successful and impact driven social ventures across Afghanistan and enable the next generation of Afghan entrepreneurs and civic leaders. They provide social innovation Labs in partnership with Unreasonable Institute, as well as mentoring and business coaching.

Most of the view from western cultural about Afghanistan is very skewed. How would you describe Afghanistan in your eyes? What should people from the West know about Afghanistan that people can be optimistic about?

Afghanistan is transforming socially, politically and economically at unprecedented levels. The country has an untapped and growing educated youth. The demand for higher education is strong, and exceeds the supply available in a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in the region. Nowhere are the opportunities to create systemic shifts over time through entrepreneurship and social innovation more prominent than among Afghan youth (18-35 year old), who have unprecedented levels of access to broadband/fiber optic internet, mobile technology and social media.

Today’s cellular network reach 75% of Afghans and 3/4G is rapidly expanding across the country. Aggregating from various private sector and higher education reports, Afghanistan also has a nascent startup scene – with an estimated 20-25,000 startups across the country. Many of which are exploring the use of technology for social good to improve health, education, access to energy and providing other services with social, economic or environmental impact.

The potential for scaling innovative solutions in Afghanistan are immense.

Contrary to what many may perceive about Afghanistan, young entrepreneurs are outward-looking with a ‘thirst’ to connect and access regional and international networks for knowledge sharing, resources and partnerships.

The entrepreneurs that Shetab has worked with and are part of our network all have one thing in common: they care deeply about a better Afghanistan; and they are equally committed to social impact and shaping positive narratives about Afghanistan based on collaboration between relevant parties inside and outside of the country. We are pioneering a real shift in the mindset, which is fundamental to what relevant parties, including also donors, can do in shaping the country’s future. It’s the most exciting time in Afghanistan.

How did you discover social enterprise in your own life?

My colleague and myself have been active in the field of social innovation and social entrepreneurship for years – and we believe in connecting regional ecosystems for social impact. Internally we sometimes talk about ‘revamping Silk Route 2.0’. We both have extensive development, philanthropic and private sector backgrounds.

We also strongly believe that traditional development models – be that traditional donor models, public sector models or even the traditional divisions between for- and non-profit sectors – are going through transformation, mostly for the better. Perhaps the ‘spirit of our generation’ is best summed up by ‘transformation’; and we believe this transformation is also taking place in Afghanistan and wider regions, where the future of business particularly is one growing with the values of social entrepreneurship.

We live in a time of extraordinary challenges – which cannot be solved through traditional (mainly inward looking) solutions, hierarchies and markets; the old paradigms simply don’t work anymore. Technology and data particularly are revealing the complexities of our social, economic and environmental challenges. The real question is whether our generation will have the courage and strength to tap into the capabilities and resources at its disposal to transform existing models and build new ones to shape and evolve humanity forward.

What are some of the ways you believe that social enterprise and social innovation can help Afghanistan?

The work of entrepreneurs and social innovators strengthens established and emerging democracies. ‘Social Entrepreneurship’ is essentially a process by which an individual or group of individuals pro-actively build or transform political and economic institutions to advance innovative solutions to social, economic or environmental problems. Social entrepreneurs and social innovators build and continually adapt institutions designed to meet society‘s pressing needs using entrepreneurial and innovative thinking.

In the Afghanistan context supporting young social entrepreneurs and social innovators who have new high impact and growth ideas, can instill confidence and hope among youth that they can access a supportive platform that leads to new enterprises and civic organizations, as well as creating jobs. With this support they can realize their ability to shape social and economic change, which reinforces their power as citizens to stay and rebuild their country.

Democracies flourish when large numbers of citizens acquire the capacity to shape civic and economic life. Social entrepreneurship is a process that enables citizens to do that.

One of the best ways to do this is to ensure the social and economic participation of vulnerable groups, including young men and women with new disrupting ideas to become meaningful contributors to society. In addition, one of the most exciting aspects of our work in Afghanistan is how we are connecting local entrepreneurs to regional and international networks for resources, knowledge and partnerships. These networks are fundamental to connecting Afghan entrepreneurs to innovative thinking and solutions, and are also intrinsically linked to re-shaping Afghan society – the power of networks truly is transformative.

Tell us about the social innovation lab that you are starting in Kabul, Afghanistan. What are some the approaches and techniques that will be taught in the social impact lab?

There is actually a very important context to why we believe these Labs are a fundamental building block to supporting startup entrepreneurs and building a more thriving startup community and ecosystem in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has an untapped pool of young citizens – this is best reflected in enrollment numbers in higher education, which has experienced explosive growth.

Afghan University instruction at the moment however is heavily teacher centered, and there is relatively little use of student centered participatory learning, or the use of technology and practical work. Many young entrepreneurs know entrepreneurship ‘from the book’ without actual practice. Many also work in silo and have little room to connect, prototype, learn, fail, cross-pollinate with other initiatives and grow.

Our Lab focuses on these underlying challenges and focuses on creating an inclusive and open hands-on and experiential learning opportunity for these young entrepreneurs. The Labs will help young Afghan entrepreneurs and social innovators with their startup ideas and concepts and shape them into viable social ventures (for profit and nonprofits).

The Lab is a hands-on 5-day accelerator for young entrepreneurs and social innovators seeking to address a specific challenge in their venture. During the 5 days, high-potential entrepreneurs will come together with world-class mentors. In the first Lab startups (7-10) will get guidance in testing the core assumptions of their social ventures. They’ll get advice from 7-10 local mentors, talk to customers, build prototypes, and build out a strategic plan.

Pitch at an Unreasonable Institute Accelerator

Partnering with Unreasonable Lab is a big step in making Shetab Afghanistan a reality. How did that partnership come about and how have they helped you in your journal to start this innovative lab in Afghanistan.

We heard about Unreasonable Labs from one of our board members who sent us the link. Once we researched it, the synergies were immediate. At Shetab Afghanistan we facilitate the process of creating successful innovative and impact-driven social ventures across Afghanistan, and support young entrepreneurs and social innovators to fully unlock the potential of their startup/idea-stage social ventures with potential for impact and growth.

Unreasonable Institute is branching out their social innovation labs across other countries, and Afghanistan is a very unique opportunity. The underlying challenges that startups face in Afghanistan however are similar to what entrepreneurs in other emerging/frontier market type settings face. Entrepreneurs need to refute and validate their ideas, need mentors, need tools and knowledge to get their ideas solidly off the ground; need to prototype, fail and rebuild again; need co-founders, developing an operational strategy, as well as access to capital.

The curriculum and network of support from Unreasonable Institute and in particular the team at BeUnreasonable has been fantastic. They have been instrumental in also guiding us through the different implementation stages, and connecting us with Mercy Corp Afghanistan which is active in entrepreneurship and social innovation – and they have agreed to make a financial contribution to our Lab. We are super-excited about their sponsoring!

Your hope is to have the lab launched in July of 2016. What are some of the initial goals of the lab? How many students or members do you hope to help in the first year?

In the immediate short-term we want to launch two Labs in 2016, support 15 startups and train our local pool of mentors (20 individuals). Based on the results and evaluation of these two Labs, we want to scale the Labs and local mentor pool to other cities in Afghanistan, including Herat, Mazar-I Sharif and Jalalabad with our local, regional and international partners.

These accelerator Labs are our entry point and process through which we engage entrepreneurs and social innovators to set up new and inclusive enterprises or civil society organizations, and start building a more vibrant and thriving startup community and networks in Afghanistan. Most importantly, we want to increase the confidence levels about the foundational assumptions underpinning their venture, and foster an inclusive, transparent and open learning environment for startups in Afghanistan. There is a reason why our vision is “to enable the next generation of mindful Afghan leaders and entrepreneurs!”

What has been the reaction in Kabul about this social impact lab being in their city? Have you seen an excitement among young entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs?

Absolutely and the support that we receive is testimony to the demand for our Labs! This is also reflected in our growing social media presence and following. Almost every day we receive inquiries about what this program is about, who it will target, and when it will launch. We are at the moment doing more outreach, awareness raising and mobilization in English, Dari and Pashtu – which is necessary.

Fundamental to building a thriving startup scene is building an engaged community; we are mobilizing and connecting to like-minded pipeline partners who are equally excited in our collaborative approach and the launch of the Labs. Not to forget, in a context such as that of Afghanistan where caution, suspicion and competition are the norm, Shetab is pioneering a new mindset which is based on openness, transparency and collaboration.

It will take time for people to shift their mindsets, and we are very tenacious! Perhaps equally exciting is how we are trying to connect to Afghan diaspora and identifying ways to better engage them and connect them to social enterprises in Afghanistan.