Q&A with Ms. Zuhal Atmar, Afghanistan’s first woman entrepreneur in the sustainability domain of wastepaper recycling

Q. While you started with waste management, you eventually focused on recycling. How did this decision evolve? What is your modus operandi?

A. For over a decade, I was engaged in waste collection through my waste management company. I also operated a logistics company. While these gave me valuable business experience, I always wanted to upscale the waste management activity to the next level, and paper recycling was an avenue I felt was neither receiving the attention nor enjoying the awareness-level it merited. This motivated me to submit a concept note on the recycling business to USAID, which was approved. Thereafter in 2015, backed by the USAID grant and my own contribution, I was able to import the specialized machinery needed for the paper recycling activity, and set my recycling plant into motion. Apart from the machinery, I invested in the construction of the plant as well. In this process, Gul-Mursal waste paper recycling factory rolled into action!

At that time, and even today, I was the only woman entrepreneur operating a paper recycling plant in Afghanistan in the formal sector!

There are three other waste recycling units in the city, but we are the only woman-owned one. Moreover, not every recycling unit is formally recognized. We are!

Currently, we are engaged in recycling waste paper and cardboard into good quality and affordable toilet rolls, which are sold across almost all the districts of Afghanistan. We source the raw material (mostly yellow or white cardboard and paper) from suppliers, who in turn collect it from individuals and establishments. The machinery in the recycling plant is designed to clean and process this waste paper into the final toilet roll product.

After intense awareness-building and advocacy meetings with the government offices for over a year, we were able to make them realize the long-term sustainability benefits of recycling, and now a government decree mandates that all the government offices here should send their old papers, which are now designated as waste and have been accumulating at their offices, to our plant for recycling.

Q. How do you envision expanding this recycling plant in Afghanistan?

A. Our typical day is operationally-intensive currently, given the challenges of electricity supply, security and raw materials. For instance, we do not get power for almost eight hours a day here. However, despite these operational challenges, we are also working towards expanding our activities.

I want to target the paper-bag product as the next logical extension of our product suite. Paper bags replacing plastic bags has major sustainability benefits, and many nations are moving towards this goals. I hope Afghanistan would do soon, as well. I have also visited some paper bag manufacturing units in India, and am keen to develop partnerships to fructify this expansion goal.

We are currently working with various government authorities and stakeholders to establish the first “recycling consortium” in Afghanistan, because the awareness-level amongst our people about recycling is still very low. Plus, the sector is still largely informal in nature. The consortium is working to address these limitations.

Q. Can you give some numbers about your plant, for readers to get a better perspective?

A. In terms of raw material, we source approximately 5 tonnes of waste paper every day. The white cardboard, being of better quality, costs a bit higher than its yellow counterpart. In terms of the final product, a typical pack of the toilet rolls costs an affordable $1.50. The efficiency level at which our plant operates is still below optimal, given the day-to-day operational challenges. We would like to scale this up.

Q. Waste creation is often attributed to the producers, because they use excessive packaging. What is your advice to create a mindset change in the consumers?

A. In Afghanistan, two limitations are hindering the consumer’s perspective. First, the level of awareness of these sustainability issues amongst our media networks is still very low. television and social media can be very useful media channels to drive consumer awareness, but a lot is still needed to be done on these fronts.

Second, we still do not have adequate replacement products for plastics. Hence, what alternative products would consumers use if they want to migrate away from plastic usage? For instance, during my last trip to India, I saw restaurants serving wood-based cutlery. We do not have such plants here.

Afghanistan needs more entrepreneurs, technical know-how and financial capital, in order to scale up this sector. Addressing these twin challenges would go a long way to change the consumers’ mindset in Afghanistan.

Q. Being a woman-entrepreneur in South Asian nations is an achievement in itself? As someone who has evolved into role-model for many girls in your country who aspire to become entrepreneurs, what is your message to them?

A. Yes, a lot of girls aspire to become entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. But there is still not much support for them, both from the institutions and the families. Our system is such that it inherently prefers to deal with men. Men have more capital, while not many women have assets in their own name. This makes it tough to give collateral to banks to raise business loans. Thankfully, the Afghan central bank is now working on a policy that would make it easier for women entrepreneurs to get loans.

My message to the girls would be that while it is not easy to be a woman in men-dominated businesses, the combination of courage, knowledge and hard work can be instrumental in opening doors and establishing your business. I vouch for this based on my own experience. I built my enterprise on my own, and I hope my journey inspires more Afghan girls to follow their entrepreneurial ideas!

I am not only running my business, but also managing my home and child. It is tough balancing your business and family every day, but it is not impossible if you have the right intent and purpose. At the same time, I get an intense satisfaction from the fact that I am able to employ over 70 people in my plant, and the salary they receive is benefiting all the members of their families. This is a major motivator for me each day, and this is also driving me to expand this plant so that I can employ more people, including women, and thus benefit more and more Afghan families.

Q. What sort of support would you require to expand your plant?

A. The main support we would need is from the government, media and partners.

We need the government’s help with aspects like land, policies and customs tariffs on imported machinery, which would be needed as part of the expansion process.

We also need the help of partners like multinational companies who have the technical expertise and financial capital, since these are limitations to expanding the sector in our country.

Lastly, we would also need the media’s support to build the awareness for the need for recycling, as well as build the branding for our products.

Feature image courtesy: Stefanie Glinski, Los Angeles Times

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