For Afghan Craftsmen, a Welcome Upswing After Years of Struggle

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

KABUL -- For a moment, it sounds like Santa's elves are at work in the little cobbler's shop in a dingy part of the capital. Hammers tap out a rhythm on leather soles, heavy shears snip and snap, and a foot-powered sewing machine whirrs in the corner.

The conditions are far from festive, though. There is a faint stench of glue, which gets stronger in hot weather. A single bulb burns in the ceiling as the owner, Zabiullah, and his crew of four young men bend over their tasks, surrounded by piles of rubber heels, leather straps and wooden molds of ladies' feet.

"My father made beautiful shoes, with Afghan leather, that lasted five years. He was so proud of them. Now, I have to use these cheap materials from Pakistan and the shoes don't last a year," Zabiullah said ruefully. "But at least I am back in my country, using my skills and feeding my family."

Like thousands of other craftsmen and small business owners here, Zabiullah, 42, is just beginning to make ends meet after a 20-year ordeal that included a flight from civil war, a decade in exile, and a post-war homecoming to a flood of cheap foreign imports that nearly drove him into bankruptcy.

Now, as the fight between Taliban insurgents and Afghan and international forces enters its eighth year, he worries that deepening insecurity will shut down the economy, bring investment to a halt and permanently destroy his dream of producing sturdy Afghan shoes once again.

Statistically, Afghanistan is on a slow but steady economic upswing. Since the overthrow of Taliban rule and the establishment of a Western-backed government in 2002, the growth rate has averaged 9 percent a year. Inflation has fallen from 24 percent to 7 percent, the currency is stable and the annual per capita income has risen from $186 to $400.

But according to studies by the United Nations, the World Bank and others, much of that growth is deceptive. It includes substantial income from foreign aid, opium poppy cultivation, a construction boom in a few cities and cottage services such as restaurants that cater to international workers and a small, local business elite.

In contrast, there has been very little private investment, especially in industries that were modernized under Soviet-backed rule in the 1980s but then destroyed during years of fighting. Today, the country depends heavily on imports, mostly from Pakistan. In 2006, it imported $3.6 billion in goods -- from wheat to tires -- but exported only $274 million.

When Zabiullah, who uses one name, started working with his father 30 years ago, they purchased rubber and leather made in local factories and used nails instead of glue. The quality of the material was good and the national brands they supplied, such as Ahu and Sahar shoes, were highly regarded.

Then in 1992, civil war erupted in the capital, and the family's house was destroyed by rockets. They fled in a truck to Pakistan, carrying only their sewing machine and a few tools. For 10 years, Zabiullah earned a living making shoes there, but once the Taliban regime was overthrown, he felt less welcome in Pakistan and was eager to return home.

"My father always told me, if you know a business, stay with it," Zabiullah said. So in 2002, he rented a shop in Kabul and began making shoes. The new government, influenced by Western donors and international lenders, decided to enact macroeconomic reforms, lower trade barriers and make the economy more competitive.

The policies were a boon to new businesses such as cellphone stores and technology schools. But for traditional craftsmen, they were a disaster. Containers of cheaply made shoes from China poured into Afghanistan, undercutting local prices by two-thirds. Most Kabul cobblers went out of business. Zabiullah's family lived off their savings, hoping things would change -- and they did.

"People began to realize that the Chinese shoes were no good," Zabiullah said with a smile of satisfaction. "They were made of plastic, which gave off a bad smell in the summer, and people had to throw them away after a few months. So they started coming back to us."

Now, three years later, Zabiullah and his crew of three have all the orders they can handle. He said he spends about $140 for each 100 pairs, and sells them for $200. Sitting behind stone benches in the tiny shop, the men glue and hammer and snip and sew all day, while the rows of newly finished ladies' pumps gradually cover the floor.

Nobody in the room has finished high school, and no one expects to do so except Zabiullah's son Samin, 15, who would like to become a doctor. The other three are young men from poor families with no chance to learn a profession. They earn $2 for each dozen pairs of shoes.

"You have to be strong to do this kind of work, and the glue gives you a terrible headache," said Abdul Farah, 27, who spends 11-hour days hammering leather uppers to soles after heating them over a gas burner to soften the glue. "I don't really like it, but I don't have any choice."

Still, the little workroom seemed a friendly place. The crew chatted and joked as they worked one day this week, then paused at noon when Zabiullah's two daughters brought a pot of soup and bread for lunch. Samin appeared after school and took his place, gluing pieces of leather with his fingers.

"I am happy enough, but I hate having to import everything from Pakistan. The quality is not good, and I feel like I am cheating my customers," Zabiullah said. "If we had more security, and the government stopped the imports entirely, maybe people would rebuild the factories. Then we could make good Afghan shoes again, the way my father once did."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company