The brilliance of female artisans embedded in the jewels of Afghanistan
Sophia Swire’s career spans finance, philanthropy, fashion and film. It began at London’s largest investment bank, but during a summer holiday she set off for a walk in a beautiful, remote valley on the Afghan-Pakistan border, and the Deputy Commissioner there asked her to help set him up a school. The happiest year of her life followed.
Sophia went on to establish and run Learning for Life, funding over 250 village schools in rural Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. For this, she was awarded the 2010 Pakistan Achievement Award.
Working with women artisans in Nepal, she spearheaded the international fashion for pashmina shawls.
Aayenda Jewelry, the latest project she is involved with, is a fair-trade fashion jewelry brand with a mission to create work for thousands of artisans in Afghanistan – especially women.
Sophia is the recipient of Humanitarian Innovation Award for Social Entrepreneurship, presented at the United Nations in New York; and is in demand as a speaker on women’s empowerment, impact investment and social entrepreneurship.
Sophia, was your understanding of the financial world helpful to you when establishing yourself as a social entrepreneur?
The three years I spent in the city were my on-the-job MBA. I left for the Hindu Kush* financially literate – able to read a balance sheet, manage cash flow and deal with numbers. I would say that having a good grounding in finance is a tremendous asset for anyone thinking of setting up a business or a charity, if it is to be anything other than a passion project.
Did one person or incident light a fire under you, inspiring you to dedicate your life to social activism?
I’ve been motivated to combat conflict and fight for fair play, since childhood. I can’t tolerate abuse. When I was 13, I stormed into my headmaster’s study to stop him from violently beating a foreign student. He was a drunk. We were all terrified of him. I remember the girl shaking as I led her by the hand out of his study to safety. He never looked at me in the face again. I think that moment might have set the tone of my life.
Sophia Swire, wearing Aayenda jewelry.
A couple of years later, I volunteered for a fund-raiser for Afghanaid, a London based charity. There, I met some of the Mujahideen commanders who had left their David and Goliath battle against the Russians, to drum up support for their cause among Britain’s political elite. All of them had lost an arm or a leg from the war or from landmines. They spoke of their fight for freedom with such passion, and with a complete lack of self-pity, balancing on their wooden stubs. I was profoundly moved by their strength of spirit and their passion.
Then National Geographic published that extraordinary cover photograph by Steve McCurry of the green-eyed Afghan refugee girl. Her raw beauty, her suffering, her resilience pierced my soul. I decided to do whatever I could to help girls like her.
Since the 1990s you’ve married fashion with social impact, and since 2008 you’ve been working with gems and jewelry from Afghanistan. Have you found your personal ‘sweet spot’ in bringing together the feminine pleasures of beauty and fashion, with real, measurable benefits to people whose lives have been ravaged by conflict?
Whilst I appreciate beauty in all its forms, I could also have worked with saffron or pomegranates. But my experience was in fashion, not in agriculture.
Wearing a pashmina shawl from her ethical fashion line, Sophia Swire London.
I’m not immune to beauty, but my passion has always been about tackling conflict and abuse. Extreme poverty drives conflict. Education – particularly for girls and women – tackles poverty. Job opportunities keep the boys busy and nothing stops a bullet faster than a job.
Giving men and women the skills to exploit their local natural resources; helping them create market-ready product and build international markets, is an excellent way to build sustainable livelihoods and, eventually, independence from foreign aid.
Aayenda Jewelry showcases Afghanistan’s fine gemstones. These delicate gold and silver earrings are set with Afghan tourmalines.
And jewelry was a natural fit for Afghanistan?
Gemstones are indigenous to Afghanistan. The lapis mines in the north are the oldest known mines in the world – nearly 7000 years old. The country also has emeralds and tourmalines that compete with the world’s finest, and many other gemstones – spinel, aquamarine, amethyst, sapphires and rubies.
The Afghans have been making jewellery for at least 2000 years. So it’s been more a question of resuscitating an ancient craft, honing the skills of indigenous artisans and developing their designs for the modern world. We have also equipped them with digital skills and technologies, to allow them to compete in the international market.
Sophia Swire checks conditions for artisanal miners at the lapis deposits in Badakshan, north east Afghanistan.
In 2011, a survey by The Guardian newspaper declared Afghanistan to be “the world’s most dangerous country in which to be born a woman.” Does this still hold true?
I believe it does, sadly. Maternal mortality rates in Afghanistan and in the region are shocking. We are working with a leading Pakistani obstetrician, to try to develop a mobile health and maternity health-care workers’ training project to work both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Fine lapis, turquoise and chrysocolla beads, hand-carved by 1200 artisans including 300 war widows in Balkh Province, North Afghanistan.
What kinds of conditions did your employees endure during years of war? Do they suffer from PTSD?
All of them have been touched by PTSD. How could they not? Bomb blasts and gunfire are a fact of life in Afghanistan. And getting used to that is not healthy.
PTSD is not officially diagnosed or treated in Afghanistan. But I have a theory that all Afghans suffer from PTSD to some extent. They were born during war, and they are forged by it. The human mind learns to dissociate, to cope with that level of stress. It results in a short attention span, fight or flight and fear-based thinking and decision-making. None of this is conducive to personal happiness, peace – or a stable business environment.
This is why we incorporated life skills into the curriculum. In addition to the technical and business skills they learned, we trained them in communication and conflict resolution. Where needed, we gave them individual therapy sessions. We taught them meditation skills. We encouraged the girls to find their voice. Eventually, they threw off their burkas and took command. It was a joy to watch.
Young Afghan women artisans hand-making an order for Aayenda Jewelry, at a workshop in Kabul.
Would you share the story of one woman in particular?
Khala Zainab, who lost her husband to the Taleban some years ago, is the inspiration behind the Aayenda Jewelry brand. She is a human dynamo, responsible for the economies of two villages in northern Afghanistan with her bead-making business. But when we first met her, she was illiterate and lacking in design, business and production skills. We knew that if we could train her in these skills – and the skills to impart them to others – that she would be able to access and train hundreds of other women in remote villages who were beyond the reach of foreign aid, because of security challenges.
She has gone on to train over 100 women in remote villages and she continues to market their product locally and internationally.
Khala Zainab draws up her first collection for Aayenda Jewelry, using the beads from her business in Balkh Province.
Do you attribute Aayenda’s success to the story behind the brand? Or do you sell on the basis of the attractiveness of the product alone?
Aayenda Jewelry collections sell because the designs are beautiful and on-trend. Style first, story second.
People are drawn to Aayenda by the contemporary twist on traditional Afghan designs, the beautiful combination of the lapis and turquoise, which is always a winner. They love the beads and the stars and the fact that you can layer them. Prices start at around $40 (USD) which makes it accessible to everyone.
Of course the story is a powerful part of the brand, but unless you have design and the 4 P’s sorted (product, price, promotion and place), you’re going to struggle to build a sustainable business.
Is the Aayenda Jewelry brand likely to have a sustainable future?
The grant which funded the start-up finished in 2014, but the brand is growing from strength to strength. It was featured on the front cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine all over the world, which was incredible publicity for the Afghans. Of course there are still challenges, but four years on, it’s going strong.
Brazilian model and actress Alessandra Ambrosio was featured wearing Aayenda Jewelry on the the front cover of Cosmopolitan, all over the world.
What’s next for you, Sophia?
After many years of empowering women in Asia, I feel the time has come to support women back home. The #metoo #timesup campaign has focused the world’s attention – and mine – on injustice and inequity at home, and has got me thinking about what I can do about it.
I’m receiving a tsunami of requests for advice and investment from female business founders in the US and the EU; women who have profitable business models that also have impact. I won’t stop supporting the Afghan artisans, but whatever I do next will include investing in skilled, passionate women entrepreneurs who can turn a profit and change the world, when given the chance! #watchthisspace.