The famed Afghan carpet industry has certainly seen better days. The once thriving industry, on which livelihoods of countless many Afghans revolved, now lies in shambles. Afghan hand-weaved carpet has traditionally been a prized possession, embellishing homes in the West and the East alike, bearing the distinction of having originated in a mystical land called Afghanistan. In earlier days, Afghan rugs, being hand woven, were dearly cherished throughout Afghanistan, from Shindand in the West to Nangarhar in the East and Faryab and Balkh to the North, scores of Afghan families weaved and rolled out the famed rug throughout the year.
While most of the rugs adorned the floors of houses throughout Afghanistan and other countries, unknown more found their way to markets in the West by more enterprising Afghan businessmen. Today, most of the commercial carpet production of the famed Afghan carpet has been relocated to Pakistan where the industry people have found everything that is needed to run their productions. Whatever raw material they cannot find in Afghanistan in abundance or at right prices, they have found in Pakistan with advantages that working inside Afghanistan cannot offer them.
As a result, a near total of what is exported to the West under the name of the Afghan carpet (rug) is produced inside Pakistan, by Afghan hands and in case of many, by Afghan businessmen. Inside Afghanistan, the production and export of Afghan carpet has come down by more than 80% over the past ten years, going by statistics provided by the industry leaders. Take for example, the small carpet industry in Kabul city's Western districts.
Once abuzz with activity and business, now not much is left of the production houses, the house-to-house network of family weavers. The high cost of raw materials, stagnant and low wages of the weavers and a collapse in the prices as a result of declining demand, as well as inability of the industry people to find markets abroad, have compelled many of the industry members to shut shop. For those few families who still weave carpets at their homes, the low wages offered by the businessmen no longer compensates well for the tedious labour and difficult toil of months of uninterrupted weaving on the frame.
The bulk of the commercial production and export of Afghan rug takes place out of Pakistan. Businessmen of Afghan origin, who settled in Pakistan long ago, as well as native Pakistanis, run an extensive business of weaving and exporting the prized commodity to many countries in the Middle East and the West, where the demand for Afghan carpet has been kept those industries alive. However, the economic downturn in the West from 2008 onwards has had its negative impact on the carpet industry in Pakistan as well as the one in Afghanistan.
As the disposable income of families have come down, demand for the Afghan carpet and other luxury decorative pieces has plummeted in those countries. In any likelihood, the future of this industry looks bright for those businessmen who can do the right business planning, do thorough market research and keep in search of new markets in the West, Middle East and elsewhere.
In the post-Taliban Afghanistan, however, the carpet industry promised to provide jobs and livelihoods to many tens of thousands of Afghans as Afghanistan was once again in the center of international attention. Reviving the industry and nurturing it into a sustainable export-oriented business sector seemed to be the ideal strategy in order to make this industry part of a redeemed Afghan economy. Not only has this ambition remained a pipedream, the industry has collapsed with the export of Afghan carpet from Afghanistan down to 5% of the total. The other 95% of what is exported under the name of the Afghan carpet is produced and sent abroad from Pakistan and Iran.
What has led to this dramatic downfall in Afghanistan's indigenous carpet weaving industry? – A tradition that has been with this people for centuries and has been refined to perfection in the hands of the same Afghan people. A closer investigation of the state of affairs in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan suggests that many factors are in play. First and foremost, it is the access to global markets in the West and the Middle East that matters in an industry which relies on mass exports to those markets.
Possessing the capabilities to carry out extensive market research operations in order to explore and capture viable markets is another critical factor if Afghan businessmen want to find markets for their carpets. All these, in turn, should fit into a larger business plan which envisages potential for growth and consolidation of an export business. Unfortunately, many Afghan businessmen do not possess these critical business capabilities.
Very few would have the required business acumen to cultivate close contacts with foreign markets and expand their businesses on professional lines. The result has been that the direct export of Afghan carpets, small as it is, has been left in few hands, mainly those Afghan businessmen who are returnees from the U.S. and other Western countries, who speak fluent English and have contacts in those markets. The majority, who cannot find direct access to foreign markets, are forced to send their declining production to Pakistan. Import of cheap and machine-made carpets from Iran and other countries and difficulties in procuring raw material, are other factors that have led to the collapse of the carpet industry in Afghanistan.
To be fair, both the government of Afghanistan and the Afghan traders and producers of hand-woven carpet are to blame for the declining production and an industry that is in ruin. The government of Afghanistan needs to step up its efforts manifold to help Afghan traders find direct access to foreign markets. On the other hand and more important, it is the Afghan traders and businessmen themselves who need to learn how to graduate their traditional businesses into modern and viable "export houses" that are able to compete with those in Pakistan and elsewhere.
The traditional business models on which almost all Afghan business houses operate ought to be gradually replaced with modern ones. The fact is that there is still enormous demand in the Western and the Middle Eastern markets for Afghan carpets. It is first and foremost up to the business acumen and intelligence of Afghan businessmen to stop whining and complaining about Pakistan and start putting their act together. After all, in foreign carpet markets as in any other market, he wins who has a better deal to offer, whether Afghan or Pakistani.