Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Arzu Studio Hope: A Sustainable Business Model for Transformational Change

It isn’t enough to talk about peace.  One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it.  One must work at it. – Eleanor Roosevelt
How do you lift women out of poverty in a country where women are marginalized and defined by their subordinate status?  According to Connie Duckworth, CEO of Arzu Studio Hope (Arzu), you use the tools you have available to design and build a platform for growth.    “There is dignity in work and self –reliance,” said Duckworth.  “Women are amazingly resourceful.  Women do the work of the world and are also the face of poverty.  They are peacemakers and mothers everywhere want the same things.  We want our kids to have opportunities, to be healthy and to have a future.”   
Arzu demonstrates that transformational change can happen even in the world’s most horrible places.  “Each one of us holds the power of hope and change in our hands,” continued Duckworth.  As a mentor to countless women coming up through the ranks at Goldman Sachs and an advocate for family focused policies like maternity leave, Duckworth has demonstrated a lifelong passion for women’s rights and economic sustainability.  Arzu is a reflection of that passion and with Arzu, Duckworth has created a roadmap that could be replicated to impact women globally.   “We’ve developed a successful business in Afghanistan, a conflict zone with no infrastructure, no power grid, no internet, no roads,” says Duckworth, “if we can do it there, we can do it anywhere.”
The concept is based on the mantra, “she who writes the check controls the agenda.”  Women that have an income can have a sense of independence that they would not otherwise have; with an income women gain authority.  The idea for Arzu grew out of an identified need.  Duckworth was asked to travel to Afghanistan as a business representative of the US Afghan Women’s Council, a Council created to ensure that in the restructuring of Afghanistan that women have a seat at the table.  They were the first delegation allowed to overnight in the country.  She describes it as stepping back in time 2000 years.  Kabul is a city devastated by civil war that flattened whole sections of the city.  On the way back to the airport the group stopped by a bombed out Soviet-style building and met dozens of women and children squatting for the winter with very little in the way of clothing and no heat, electricity or water.  Many, if not all, of these women were widows with no education and no way to support their children – and it is not uncommon for women in Afghanistan to have 7 or 8 children. 
Struck by these images, Duckworth knew she was going to do something to create a business to employ as many women as possible.  The challenge: start a business with no access to electricity, in a war-zone, without a shipping infrastructure or banking infrastructure.   While she did not have these things, she did have a vision.  She wanted to identify an export product that would create enough cash to fund the back end of the business including all the materials, all the social programs and provide for fair wages.
Here is where the process begins to emerge.
Step one in starting a business is to get as much information as you can.  Duckworth hired a woman at the UN to compile economic data.  One drawback was that the data was from 1975 but it still provided some framework to work from.  Afghanistan is extremely poor, extremely dry and access to water is limited – thus, no opportunity for agriculture.  To set the stage, there are really no employment opportunities for women or men.
Step two was to use this information to identify the product.  Weaving is a culturally acceptable activity for women, they can weave in their homes, and in theory the business could be started that day.    So, through trial and error, Duckworth essentially backed into high quality Afghan rugs as the target product. 
In life, success is based partly on the cards falling your way.  Bamyan Province has the first, and so far, only female governor, Habiba Sarabi.  She was appointed in 2005 and she invited Duckworth to start an enterprise in Bamyan.  Bamyan Province is home to the magical Buddha’s and translated means ‘The Place of Shining Light.’  Bamyan is one of the thirty-four provinces of Afghanistan.  According to the Regional Rural Economic Regeneration Strategies (RRERS), 

Bamyan is one of the poorest, most mountainous, and agriculturally least productive areas in the country. Much of the land is barren and inaccessible, with acute water shortages, small landholdings, extensive food insecurity, and poor soil quality characterizing much of the region. While specific communities in Bamyan have benefited from short-term relief efforts and some infrastructure improvements, substantial need for well-planned initiatives remains. 

Duckworth made the decision to start an enterprise around training and developing Afghan talent.  While still a segregated society, the company is run by two production managers: one male and one female.

Step three is to negotiate or garner the support of family and community.  To do this, Arzu went village to village and house to house negotiating with the male heads of households to create a social contract.  The deal was that in exchange for fair labor wages, the company would pay for “A” quality product and add a 50% quality bonus.  These are highly skilled and talented artisans.  Each year Arzu formally sits down with each family to negotiate and they truly understand what a job can do to transform a woman’s life and her social position in the household.
One story that Duckworth tells is that of a widowed woman weaver named Fatima.  Arzu gives priority to widows.  Before Arzu, Fatima was living in a refugee camp with her seven children.  Statistically, 25% of children in Afghanistan die by the time they are 5 years old, 95% of women will never have any medical care and Afghanistan has the second highest maternal death rate globally.  These women suffer from malnutrition and illiteracy and 85% of them suffer domestic violence.  If there is a history of being a sole wage earner, however, that woman’s respect goes up dramatically.  Fatima is now reading at a fifth grade level, supporting her family and is a shining beacon of hope for them.
Why does this model work?  Because, says Duckworth, these families are being economically incented to support the model.  “Follow the money,” says Duckworth.  “We believe that for this to work, women need to be empowered economically and also supported with an ecosystem.  You can’t just pull one end of the thread out of a ball of yarn.  You need to bring in education and promote health.” 
Part of Arzu’s success is because they consciously built an ecosystem of support that consists of three components.  First, the family must agree that the women get released to Arzu for 2 hours a day for tutoring.  One woman who realized this change in her life commented that, “reading is like a blind woman getting her eyes.”  It is amazing that things that we take for granted can make such a huge impact.  Second, the family must agree that all children in the household go to school and Arzu tracks compliance.  Third, the family must release the women for pre- and post-natal care health checks.   It is significant that since 2006 the community that lives within this ecosystem has not lost a mother or baby in childbirth in a country with one of the highest maternal death rates.   The difference is that the families have bought into the business model.  They are economically incented to do so and their success is based on their own performance. 
“If you follow the money and trace it back, you can figure out why people behave the way they do,” explained Duckworth.  For example, why do families marry their girls off at the age of 12? Economics -  the family gets money from selling the daughter to the in-laws.  If, however, we can figure out how to provide employment to teenage girls they are worth more to their families earning a consistent income.  Whenever possible, Arzu employs teenage girls for part-time jobs.  They are the teachers for the women weavers, they help in the garden.  Seventy female students are attending college.  The equation is simple: income = girls get to stay in college.     
Arzu demonstrates that if you can show someone that they can be the catalyst to set their children on the path to a better life, they will do what it takes to make that happen.  The message to us is that no change happens if you don’t start.  “It doesn’t matter what you do,” says Duckworth.  “Just start.  If each of us just did that one thing that we are capable of doing there could be a tsunami of change.”  Arzu has created between 700 and 1000 jobs in a place where there are no jobs, scarce resources, cultural challenges and overwhelming destitution.  Change happens with baby steps and celebrating small victories.  Arzu is an inspiration for promoting transformational change through sustainable business models. 
For more on Connie Duckworth’s vision and journey, listen in to ICOSA’s Driving Force radio and anyone can support by going to Peace Cord. 





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