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Fixing Aid | How this Afghan-led business pivoted to emergency aid

‘It doesn't matter what our business model is or who we are. I was looking at the situation and decided I will help people.’

In this episode of our podcast series, Fixing Aid, host Alae Ismail explores how a diaspora-led business turned global concern into emergency aid –delivered straight to families in the middle of Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis.

Millions of Afghans need aid, months after the Taliban seized power in August 2021. Afghanistan’s economy is collapsing, with billions in foreign reserves and aid funding frozen. Nearly the entire population doesn’t have enough food to eat, according to UN estimates, as cash shortages, job losses, and rising prices keep food out of reach.

When you’re a member of the diaspora community, it can feel helpless watching a crisis unfold in your home country. Ismail looks at how the Afghan founder of Aseel, an e-commerce platform, turned his worry into action, leveraging consumer dollars and diaspora resources into much-needed aid.

She talks to Aseel’s founder – a former refugee himself – and to a team member leading operations in Kabul. Together, they share the realities of working under the Taliban, how they’re expanding, and why they aren’t partnering with traditional aid agencies.

Guests: Nasrat Khalid, founder of Aseel; Ihsan Hasaand, lead distributor, Aseel.

Do you know of innovations in the aid sector that are genuinely improving the lives of people in the midst of humanitarian crises, or others that have really missed the mark? Let us know: [email protected]. We’re interested in everything, from tech and AI, to environmental projects, to supply chain delivery. Tell us!

Got a question or feedback? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter or Instagram: @NewHumanitarian. 

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Our flagship podcast, Rethinking Humanitarianism, just wrapped up its second season and will be back soon. In the meantime, we’d be grateful if you’d share your thoughts on the series here.

Show notes

Aseel

Afghanistan’s crises, by the numbers

Rethinking Humanitarianism Season 2

Transcript | Finding better ways for people to give feedback

Alae Ismail:

Fixing Aid | Episode 2 | Aseel

Hey listeners, welcome to the new episode of Fixing Aid!

I’m Alae Ismail, and in this podcast series by The New Humanitarian, we look at innovations meant to improve the lives of people in humanitarian crises – from those fleeing conflict to communities facing flooding, prolonged drought, and hunger.

Today, we take you to Afghanistan, where a different type of humanitarian is trying to help, in the middle of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

When you’re a member of a diaspora community, like myself, and you’re watching a crisis unfolding in your home country, you feel helpless. How do you help – person-to-person – when the entire country is in crisis?

In this episode, we’ll hear the story behind one Afghan-led e-commerce business that started in the diaspora, how it pivoted from a for-profit sales business to emergency aid, and the roadblocks it faces in scaling up.

I’m still devastated when I think about that image of the plane in Kabul airport last August, taking off as so many people were still pushing to board, desperate to leave Afghanistan as the Taliban took over and the U.S. and its allies left the country they invaded twenty years earlier.

Months later, the country faces a humanitarian catastrophe on multiple fronts. Afghanistan’s economy is imploding. Food prices have soared. Jobs and cash are scarce. Government services, including the healthcare sector, are barely hanging on, while hunger and malnutrition are growing.

Many Afghans are still trying to leave because of this. For the vast majority who remain, just affording the basic necessities is a struggle.

Take Ghulam. He lives in the Paktia province of eastern Afghanistan. Even though he retired five years ago, he wants to work again. He has no choice. Since the Taliban came to power, daily life for him and his 14 family members has not been easy, he says:

Ghulam:

Although my beard has grown white, I have the strength to work but there is no job here. There is no job and no money, people are poor and have nothing. As everyone knows, the primary necessities are needed here, like flour, and everything else to survive on. My message to those who have left Afghanistan and are working abroad is that they are our brothers, and our beloved ones, so they should not forget their poor countrymen and help them as much as they can.

Ismail:

Jobless and unable to afford even flour, Ghulam and his family are far from alone in today’s Afghanistan. The UN says 95 percent of the population aren’t getting enough to eat.

When the Taliban seized Kabul, international donor governments suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in aid that paid for the salaries of many doctors, nurses, and teachers. They also froze billions in foreign reserves – Afghanistan’s own money. International banks are often wary of transferring funds into the country because of long-standing sanctions and restrictions targeting the Taliban. Long story short: Afghanistan’s economy has collapsed, there’s a severe cash shortage, and it’s hitting everyone – especially people like Ghulam.

He wants to work and support his family, but no one is hiring.

More than half a million people lost their jobs – a 14 percent drop. Many others haven’t received a salary in months.

Zarmalook lives in the same province as Ghulam. As a teacher, he usually has no trouble supporting his family of eight. But Zarmalook is currently sitting at home, without any income:

Zarmalook:

We haven’t received a salary for three months. There are a lot of financial problems because there is no company or firm where people can work. We need help in the form of money and food and other basic things. And for people with fertile land, they need seeds to plant. Those kinds of things would improve our lives.

Audio clips, news broadcasts Sept 2021 to Feb 2022:

Afghanistan is staring into a humanitarian crisis. Millions of people in Afghanistan are facing starvation in what is fast becoming the worst humanitarian crisis on earth. Today we’re launching an appeal for $4.4 billion for Afghanistan itself for 2022. Sanctions, frozen aid, the pandemic, and now massive drought have made hunger endemic across the country, Afghanistan ranking number one on the International Rescue Committee’s recently released...

Ismail:

In August 2021, Nasrat Khalid followed the developments in Afghanistan from the United States. His family fled Afghanistan for Pakistan in the early 90s and lived as refugees; the struggles he was seeing so many Afghans face, felt familiar. He wanted to help Afghans who were suddenly facing really desperate situations – like Zarmalook and Ghulam.

In this episode, we look at how Nasrat, founder of the e-commerce platform Aseel, went from selling Afghan arts and crafts, to delivering emergency aid funded by buyers in the US and elsewhere – all in the space of a week.

This allows those in the diaspora who want to help, to send aid directly to specific communities or even individual families.

Nasrat Khalid:

I think it was mostly a decision of, it doesn't matter what our business model [is] or who we are, and things like that. I was looking at the situation, talking to the team, and I decided I will help people. It wasn't, ‘Aseel is going to get into a new sector.’ It was more of, ‘people need help, let me help them.’

Ismail:

During the Afghan civil war in the early 90s, when Nasrat was just a baby, the Khalid family was among the 3 million Afghans who fled to neighbouring Pakistan. For years, they lived in a refugee camp, struggling. He remembers, families like his received little humanitarian support.

Khalid:

There isn’t much institutional support that refugees get. So it's hard to live as a refugee. And then it's even harder if you're a refugee in a country that is poor itself. Pretty much everything that we did for ourselves were from my family: My mom and dad doing initially maybe informal jobs, and then later on making their own Afghan refugees school as an institution to help other people as well, and [it] also helped the family not to fall into extreme poverty.

Ismail:

Nasrat’s parents set up a school in the refugee camp. Then they equipped it with a single computer. Nasrat found his passion: He spent countless hours in front of the screen, teaching himself how to code.

The Khalids moved back to Afghanistan when Nasrat was a teenager. But he never lost his interest in computers. Once he finished school, he got a job as an IT advisor in the development sector – first in Afghanistan, and later across South East Asian countries for partner organisations of the United States Agency for International Development. Eventually, he moved to Washington DC, working in IT for the World Bank.

Having grown up in a refugee camp, Nasrat was eager to contribute to a better future for other refugees. But after years working in the development sector, he felt increasingly frustrated. The organisations where he worked aimed to improve the lives of people who were experiencing what he had lived through as a child: life in a refugee camp, in a foreign country, never feeling home. But to Nasrat, it felt like things were not changing fast enough.

Khalid:

It didn't seem like this big institution was making as much impact, as I thought. Most of these really big institutions around DC or New York or other countries, the practicality aspect of things is not looked into. Especially in the case of Afghanistan, I think, one of the world's poorest managed humanitarian and international development activity. And I can go on, give you hundreds of examples from my time, where, for example, schools were ghost schools: there were no schools, but contractors were being paid.

Ismail:

Afghanistan has seen substantial improvements in healthcare indicators and girls’ education, for example, in the last 20 years. But aid watchdogs say there are also plenty of examples of poorly designed or wasteful aid projects.

Nasrat tried to think of other ways to help his country – something that was broader than refugees and something, he hoped, that could reach Afghans directly.

His solution? Nasrat wanted to sell Afghan artisan crafts to international customers. There are e-commerce platforms that sell hand-crafted items, such as Etsy – the well-known online marketplace – but nothing focuses specifically on Afghanistan, or connects Afghan artisans with individual buyers abroad.

To Nasrat’s mind, an e-commerce business would create a direct impact for artists across Afghanistan. It would increase their incomes, spotlight their skills, and show a different side of the country to the outside world – one much different from the usual headlines of violence, war, and hunger.

His focus on arts and crafts also linked back to the years Nasrat lived in the Pakistan refugee camp. His mother supported the family then by selling her embroidery work. Nasrat remembers many others in the camp who did all types of artisan crafts. It's part of the Afghan culture:

Khalid:

Families would do different things to support themselves. Many families would do carpet weaving, for example, embroidery, bags, and other things that were being made by the community and the people. Every Afghan, I think, has some kind of a connection with jewellery items and other handmade things, which is an integral part of society.

Ismail:

With $175 thousand USD from his savings, he built a website with a small, three-person team, and launched Aseel in 2018.

Khalid:

W

ithin the first year of launching Aseel, it looked like I wasn't making much progress. I went to Afghanistan maybe 6 times in 12 months, trying all kinds of things. The first shipment got me excited and the first sale.

Ismail:

Things were looking up. Nasrat projected 2021 would be his company’s best year. But all this changed when the United States announced its military would leave Afghanistan after 20 years.

Audio clip, President Joe Biden, April 2021:

It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home. We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely.

Ismail:

Foreign troops did leave Afghanistan, but it was much more rushed than the Americans had promised. Meanwhile, the Taliban gained greater control over the country. At first, a few more sparse, rural districts. Then, Taliban fighters were threatening provincial centres. Finally, in August, they swept through most of the country with lightning speed. By August 15, a Sunday, the Taliban seized Kabul, and with it, the country.

Audio clips, news broadcasts, Aug. 2021:

We start with breaking news now, Taliban fighters have reached the Afghan capital Kabul. This is a tense night in Afghanistan. The Taliban are back in charge after 20 years. There was practically no resistance at all. We don't want anyone bilaterally recognizing the Taliban. Thousands of Afghans are now trying to escape, fearing a return to hardline Taliban rule.

Ismail:

When the Afghan government fell, the Aseel team had to figure out how to operate under extreme conditions. Suddenly, the Taliban were in charge, and female colleagues, worried about their safety, started working from home. The banking system was barely functional.

But instead of focusing on how to get Aseel’s supply chain of arts and crafts sales up and running again, the priority became helping people in Afghanistan.

Aseel employees started by visiting different displacement camps and asking people what they needed, and what people wanted was food.

Nasrat realised that his company could fill a gap. If Aseel could add emergency aid packages to their online marketplace, then customers halfway across the world could help Afghans in need – directly.

Khalid:

We already had a payment system in place where we would pay our artisans, so we used that system, we used the platform, we told our customers. Most of the people who bought from us obviously stayed connected with Afghanistan in some way. And then we also looked at for things to be able to be locally sourced. We believe that buying locally throughout this process is very important. Because those supply chains, the shops, the wholesalers need to be supported, to not close down.

Ismail:

So I am online and on the Aseelapp.com website right now, I see there are 6 different emergency packages. There are 2 different food packages for $70 USD. There is a package for child relief that includes things such as diapers, rice, formula milk for $55 USD, which is different from the $40 USD baby package. And then there is the first-aid package. Oh, and for $195 USD, there is the life package that includes a tent, blankets, and clothing – things that are all desperately needed by people across Afghanistan.

One of those people is Fazila. She lives in Kabul with her husband, who has a disability, and seven children. Even though all her children have school and university degrees, none are currently employed. She says it’s especially difficult to feed her family:

Fazila:

Finding food for 10 days, 15 days or even a month is considered an achievement here. Prices have skyrocketed. For instance, a sack of flour costs close to $30 USD. Cooking oil and other basic things have also become very pricey. People need to eat a lot to survive.

Ismail:

Fazila now relies on food distributed by Aseel.

Nasrat, your packages are very much focused on food and nutrition – we just heard Fazila list some of the food items she needs. I’m curious to hear how your team decided on what to include in each package to make sure your product meets the needs of your customer base:

Khalid:

We look at what is required on the ground in the initial days. And we asked for what people need. And based on that we designed the products. We also consulted with quite a few doctors from some of the biggest medical schools in the US to respond to the malnutrition crisis. And so their technical input was also very helpful.

Ismail:

Aseel says it has distributed over 10 thousand packages to families across Afghanistan since it started delivering aid – enough to help over 65,000 people. The packages usually last about a month.

Delivering aid on a country-wide scale is normally overseen by big aid groups – UN agencies and international NGOs collectively spending hundreds of millions in donor government funds.

Diaspora humanitarianism, like the emergency packages provided by Aseel, are rarely included in these traditional aid structures – something Nasrat is experiencing as well:

Khalid:

We have reached [out] to the UN multiple times, and yet they haven't collaborated with us. Bigger institutions have not partnered with us, because this is just very different to them. We have reached out but we haven't got much success yet.

Ismail:

For the Aseel team, the first weeks after the Taliban takeover were hectic

Ihsan Hasaand:

The most difficult part was we started from zero, and we didn't have many resources.

Ismail:

That’s Ihsan Hasaand speaking. He leads the Aseel distribution team in Afghanistan. When he joined the start-up in June 2021 last year, he was excited about the prospect of working with a team of young professionals.

But instead he found himself part of a tech company that had just pivoted its entire online business from exporting crafts, to delivering emergency aid.

Hasaand:

We have a team of volunteers in Afghanistan in more than 25 provinces. So they're just checking families street by street, home by home, to find the most desperate and needy family. And then they get them registered through our platform. When I'm done with the listing, then I go to the province, physically distribute the aid packages to the families.

Ismail:

Ihsan says those receiving aid reach out to him and his colleagues all the time with questions and comments, and with news about their families. All of this data is tracked in real-time by the Aseel team.

What stands out to me on the website is that someone buying the packages can choose to help a specific community or their own family. So if I have relatives or friends in the country, I can share their details with the Aseel team. Aseel will contact them, and tell them when they can expect their delivery. It’s something that’s relatable to many people from a country facing disaster or conflict – you want to help your country, but often you first want to make sure your family is OK.

Say someone is living in America or Europe – or anywhere else in the world – they can order a package, with food or blankets, online. How long does it take before it’s delivered?

Hasaand:

If the beneficiary is inside Kabul, we will deliver the package within 24 hours. But if the family lives outside of Kabul, we will deliver the packages [in] two [to] three days.

Ismail:

The Taliban’s takeover pushed the Aseel team to change direction, to pivot from a purely e-commerce business to bringing people across the country items they need and want, by adding just one component: aid packages.

They still run the for-profit arts and crafts part, but they run a non-profit humanitarian intervention at the same time. All of this is happening under the Taliban, in a country with devastating hunger levels, and without the support of traditional aid groups.

One of the big changes for the Aseel team is who they do business with. Previously, all their contracts were with the artisans making and selling handmade items, such as jewellery and embroidery. Now, contracts are signed with wholesalers, who provide the items that go into each package – from rice and beans to oil and flour. But it took some time to get those wholesalers on board:

Hasaand:

In the past, the banking system was working properly. Every bank had enough money, but now since the government collapsed and the cut off happened with the international countries, it has impacted the banking system a lot.

Ismail:

When someone buys an aid package on Aseel, their payment is processed in the United States, as founder Nasrat started his platform there. But, because of sanctions and banking restrictions, it now takes weeks to get the money to Afghanistan, where the aid is sourced. Aseel had to renegotiate contracts with its wholesalers, to give them more time to pay their bills.

But I can’t stop wondering: What is it really like to run a business under the Taliban? Aseel is out there with dozens of volunteers bringing people food. But Aseel is not a big international institution. They are a group of young and tech-minded professionals trying to help their people. How do those in power respond to their work?

Hasaand:

We're not doing something that is illegal, or that's against the law or regulation of the country. But there are some challenges as well, like when our volunteer, going to photograph the situation of a family, some commanders or soldier will stop them and say, ‘Hey, why are you doing this?’. But the good thing is we have a document signed by the high officials of the government, and this is how we work.

Ismail:

And because of these documents for the volunteers, packages are still arriving for people like Ziaullhaq – a teacher in Kabul, who went from the classroom to selling oranges on the street to feed his family:

Ziaullhaq:

They called me yesterday and told me about the aid and I came to collect my share. I am really happy about this humanitarian aid. Some of my problems are solved for a while now. I really thank whoever made this possible and who delivered it to us.

Ismail:

Ziaullhaq’s aid package is having a real impact on the family. Thousands of others have benefited as well. But there are 39 million Afghans.

In the coming weeks, Aseel is raising money for the first time from investors, hoping to raise $4.7 million for expansion and growth – not just in Afghanistan, but also in other markets and countries with refugees and other people in need.

It’s a different approach compared to a typical aid organisation. Big aid agencies also raise millions of dollars from individuals, governments, and foundations, but rarely from private investors. Wouldn’t it be a win-win situation if start-ups like Aseel and the aid sector could work together in a way that includes the diaspora – and anyone who wants to make a direct impact?

In the case of Aseel, I wonder if it's the technology that’s the innovative part, or actually the way they managed to mobilise volunteers in the country, diaspora communities, and people who want to help from far away.

And how sustainable is Aseel’s business model compared to others targeting the same customers – I’m thinking of crowd-funding platforms raising financing for loved ones in conflicts, or buy-to-give-one models. Will they be able to create a greater impact?

Combining and integrating these agile start-up and tech skills, within traditional aid structures, could help more people, more quickly.

That’s it for this week’s episode of The New Humanitarian’s podcast series: Fixing Aid.

We have more episodes coming up, and in all of them, we’ll start with asking people who are in need of aid or who receive aid, what they need to improve their lives. And then we’ll look at how to address those problems by talking to the innovators who are trying out new ideas and solutions.

Join us next time, when we look at blockchain, and if that can be used to make sure that everyone can have secure access to their ID papers – especially people pushed from their homes by disaster or conflict.

Send us your feedback – find us on Instagram or Twitter: @NewHumanitarian, or send us an email: [email protected]

Don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review.

This episode is a production of The New Humanitarian.

This episode was produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf.

And I’m Alae Ismail. See you next time!

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