Afghanistan’s carpet industry has good prospects for growth and global exports.
The international community believes that Afghanistan's carpet industry has a real growth and export potential.
Carpet weaving is Afghanistan’s second largest industry after agriculture. Out of a population of over 25 million, around one million Afghans are employed in this sector. This makes carpets one of the most significant legal exports from Afghanistan – the illegal ones being heroin and opium, whose smuggling is the most lucrative economic activity in the country.
Most carpets in the country are produced by a huge network of weavers based in rural areas. A large part of the production takes place in the northern provinces, but a sizeable chunk also comes from the western province of Herat and the areas surrounding capital Kabul.
According to reports, some 95 percent of the production takes place in homes on free-standing looms that are supplied by carpet dealers who also provide the wool and designs as they have a better idea of popular trends in the international market.
An interesting fact about the Afghan carpet industry is that it is one of the few industries in which women are making a significant contribution. The carpet industry has enabled a large number of Afghan women to make a living. It proved particularly useful during the Taliban regime (1996-2001) when women were not allowed to work outside their homes. Back then, carpet weaving provided many Afghani women a source of income.
The time required for carpet production depends on the size, quality, and materials used. The process is tedious and time-consuming and even skilled weavers take about a month to make a meter-long chobi
rang (a traditional rug), which can fetch up to $190 in the international market. Similarly, the weaving of a high-quality 10 meters square carpet takes a single family some ten months to weave.
Once the work is done, the dealer comes for inspection and purchases the carpet if it meets his requirements. The money that a weaver gets depends on the type of carpet. Costs can range anywhere between $50 for the smallest and simplest carpet to $500 for a detailed, large and high-quality rug.
Given the difficult nature of the craft, it is not surprising that it remains
almost exclusive and unique to the Afghan community – a fact in which they take great pride. The community is also fiercely protective of its skills. “We don’t want to transfer it to other communities, it is our traditional skill and we only transfer this rare art to our children,” Shitab Ali, a senior weaver, is reported to have said in an interview. “It takes a lifetime to acquire this skill and if we transfer this art to other communities, what will we do?” asked Ali.
Meanwhile, there has been a shift in the Afghan carpet weaving industry in the last 30 years, particularly with regard to the cutting and washing process – an essential stage in carpet production. Today, a lot of cutting and washing takes place in Peshawar, Pakistan. In fact, some reports indicate that a good 80 percent of Afghani carpets are finished in Pakistan after which they are exported with a ‘made in Pakistan’ tag.
One of the reasons for this practice is the lack of cutting and washing facilities in Afghanistan due to decades of war, political instability, lack of credit and land. In the absence of a proper infrastructure, carpet dealers consider selling the unfinished product to Pakistani wholesalers a viable option since a long-term investment in a finishing facility is a risky proposition.
It is because of this shift that Afghanistan’s carpet manufacturers and dealers are losing out on major profits. In fact, Afghani manufacturers reportedly receive a mere 10 percent of the profit that the Pakistani exporters get. Those who still choose to finish carpets in Afghanistan find the business quite slow since international buyers are hesitant to visit the country. They would rather go to Peshawar and purchase rugs since this city is considered to be comparatively safe than the cities of Afghanistan.
Carpets are also shipped via air from Afghanistan to Dubai and then further on to other international markets in Europe and North America. However, only a few Afghan dealers use this route since air transport is an expensive option, given the small size of the industry. Transporting carpets by road in trucks to Pakistan remains the most cost-effective option for dealers – over 90 percent of the carpets that make their way to the international markets are sent to international destinations from Karachi.
Given the long and arduous production process, Afghan carpets come with a high price tag. This is the reason why the industry suffered a great deal during the global economic recession. Studies show that globally, carpet exports were down by 44 percent soon after various economies were hit by recession. Export sales of Afghan carpets were down to 11 percent in 2010 but experts say that the figure is slowly climbing up, now that the economies are recovering.
It is for this reason that the international community considers the carpet industry to be an area of the Afghani economy which has a real growth and export potential. The U.S. Departments of Interior and Defense awarded a $1 million contract to a consulting firm in 2010 in a bid to improve the existing market for Afghan carpets. Tremayne, a company based in New Jersey, U.S.A., was responsible for identifying suppliers and commercially viable transport routes out of Afghanistan along with luring buyers to a sales hub in Turkey.
Even then, Afghanistan cannot depend on foreign assistance forever and must find its own home-grown solutions to generate revenues from carpet sales to turn it into a sustainable industry. There is too much at stake here; Afghanistan cannot afford to lose an industry for which there is a real global market.