Afghan carpet industry facing threadbare future

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Media captionAfghan carpetmaking hit by cheap rivals from Iran and Turkey

Bibi Shirin Akberi's carpetmaking factory in Kabul used to be buzzing with activity just three years ago. Now she hardly gets any business.

Her modest factory is among those which are still making the world-famous handwoven Afghan carpets.

Known for their artistry, design and colour, these carpets are made mostly by women in the north and east of the country.

Ms Akberi thought she was making a new beginning after returning from Pakistan, where she lived as a refugee for many years. But that is not how things worked out.

"Till 2009, I used to employ 300 workers in my factory. But the orders have dropped dramatically and I couldn't pay salary to my staff. Now I employ only 20 people," 38-year-old Ms Akberi tells the BBC.

She is among thousands of carpetmakers staring at a bleak future, as the sale of carpets has declined to a shocking level in the past five years. Many people have been forced out of business.

While financial fluctuations can be common in any commercial venture, the damage sustained by the Afghan carpet industry is significant as the country doesn't have many products in its export basket.

In fact, in 2007, carpets were Afghanistan's biggest export, with overseas sales amounting to around $261m (then £128m, 185m euros).

Last year the exports dropped to just $46m, according to the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries.

The figures are a big blow to the war-ravaged nation, which has been attempting to rebuild its economic and business activity after decades of conflict.

There are no official figures but it's believed that millions of people in Afghanistan depend on carpetmaking either directly or indirectly, although the numbers might have dropped due to developments in recent years.

Competition from neighbouring countries, a lack of infrastructure for the carpet industry and years of civil war and instability have been cited as reasons for the slide in Afghan carpet manufacturing and exports.

The country has a centuries-old tradition of producing handmade carpets.

Afghan carpets adorn living rooms in houses around the world but they are expensive. Some of the best carpets can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Machine-made competition

Kabul's Chicken Street houses some of the finest carpet showrooms.

It's the favourite hunting ground for foreigners who want stylish and elegant Afghan carpets.

Image caption The government has pledged support to revive the domestic carpet industry

Gradually, some shops in Chicken Street are moving towards selling machine-made imported carpets from neighbouring countries. While carpet exporters suffer, some shop owners say business is thriving.

"Ordinary people cannot buy Afghan carpets. They are expensive. But Iranian and Turkish carpets are cheaper and affordable. They are machine-made. That's why people here are buying more and more Iranian and Turkish carpets," says Abdul Qadir Rauf, a carpet shop owner in Chicken street.

With the country enjoying a respite from war for the past 10 years, it has also been exposed to the impact of globalisation. Those machine-made carpets from Iran, Turkey and China cost a quarter of the price of an average Afghan carpet.

The other main problem is the lack of proper infrastructure for the industry to establish itself. Many carpetmakers from Afghanistan would simply send their carpets across the border to Pakistan for washing and cutting. Officials say they are often shipped from there as "Made in Pakistan" carpets.

Industrial parks

The Afghan government says it's taking a series of steps to protect and promote carpetmaking activity, described as the national industry of Afghanistan.

"We are establishing two industrial parks to help carpetmakers with all the facilities. Carpet producers need not go to Pakistan for scissoring and washing. We will also give land for workers to live there," Mozammil Shinwari, Afghan Deputy Minister for Trade, told the BBC.

He said the government would also help to find markets for the carpetmakers, as the country enjoys duty-free access to many countries.

Image caption Millions of people in Afghanistan are thought to depend on carpets for their livelihood

But given the government's preoccupation in establishing security following a spike in violence, it's not clear how far they will be successful in their efforts to resuscitate the industry.

Carpetmaking is crucial for Afghanistan as it is one of the few sectors which offer employment, particularly for women. Tens of thousands of women have the skills to weave carpets but they don't have opportunities.

"I came back to Afghanistan after Hamid Karzai became president," says Bibi Shirin Akberi. "For six months I trained around 500 women in carpet weaving. I thought I will get a project so that these women can earn their livelihood.

"But my dreams have been shattered."

Afghanistan is aware that it cannot depend on foreign aid forever and that it has to find ways to generate its own revenue in the coming years.

With so much at stake, many here argue that the country cannot afford to lose this crucial industry.

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