The flight from Kabul to Bamiyan is brief. In 40 minutes, you soar over spurts of deep green vegetation surrounded by various shades of dusty brown; small clusters of rectangular buildings; slivers of streams that wind through the otherwise monotonous countryside; and, everywhere, mountains.
Mountains that climb higher than your small non-pressurized plane, mountains covered by nothing but golden dirt and piles of rocks, mountains that have claimed their share of human lives and crashed planes.
I arrived in Bamiyan on Sunday, in search of the province’s entrepreneurs for an upcoming documentary on start-ups in Afghanistan.
Since then, I’ve wandered through Bamiyan Center’s seemingly endless potato fields, which serve not only as sources of agricultural income, but also the area’s pedestrian highways. I spent one early morning exploring the ruins of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and another Shar’e Gholgola (or Fortress of Screams, so-named for Genghis Khan’s ruthless massacre centuries ago).I’ve smoked shisha beneath a beautifully, starry night sky and confused my own breath in front of me for the smoke of the pipe. I’ve met with members of the international community working on economic development in Bamiyan, and debated Afghan politics, Hazara identity, and predictions about 2014 with local community members. And of course, I’ve had countless cups of delicious Afghan chai.
I have not found start-ups – at least none that resemble the tech start-up model that has come to define the term in the United States.
According to Paul Graham, one of the most revered thought leaders in tech-start-up-land, start-ups are different from small businesses in their focus on a scalable product. Product-based – as opposed to service-based – is key because it means the potential to scale exponentially, and scaling is key because the very term “start-up” implies growth and scale.
In the United States, initiatives like Start-Up America promote the idea that entrepreneurship is the key to economic development and job creation, especially in a down economy.
But in Bamiyan, neither of these models seems to hold.
The local economy is still largely agrarian, with those endless potato fields producing the best tubers in all of Afghanistan. NGOs and “civil society” still play a huge role in the local social and economic fabric as well. Project funds and implementation pump millions into the local economy, providing not only jobs, but also careers for educated Bamiyanis to aspire to.
Indeed, international organizations and the local NGOs that they support seem to provide the backbone of Bamiyan. The Agha Khan Foundation, widely perceived as one of the most effective development organizations in Afghanistan today, is behind many of the economic development initiatives in Bamiyan, including eco-tourism, infrastructure projects, and small business support. UNAMA’s (United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan) development unit, meanwhile, is working on basic capacity building projects for local NGOs in several key sectors. And the work of COAM (the Conservation Organization for Afghanistan’s Mountains) seems to be as close as it gets to the Paul Graham model of start-ups; in addition to other environmental initiatives, this organization has brought to market an innovative clean stove that is not being given out, a la traditional NGOs, but traded.
This is all laudable and very important work, but it is still a far cry from the profit- and exit strategy-driven world of start-ups.
This leaves me wondering if my search for “start-ups” is Western and pitifully uninformed. Am I looking for a concept that is culturally alien to Bamiyan? Or is the lack of “start-ups” an issue of market maturity? And if that is the case, does NGO-driven economic development precede entrepreneur-driven? Or is it that my definition of start-up is too specific?
I have until Sunday to find what I’m looking for. And if I do not, it might be time to rethink some of my assumptions.
In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying the mountains, the potato fields, and the chai.