Home » Selene Biffi returns to Kabul to teach women to become entrepreneurs. “The world survives thanks to hope”

Selene Biffi returns to Kabul to teach women to become entrepreneurs. “The world survives thanks to hope”

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Selene Biffi returns to Kabul to teach women to become entrepreneurs.  “The world survives thanks to hope”

“In a week lathe Kabul. I was evacuated after it fell in August 2021. And after a sabbatical, I’m starting again. I bring to Afghanistan two projects unique to that country: I will teach women to become entrepreneurs within the home”.

Selene Biffi, 42 years old, more than 60 awards and recognitions. Her name is known around the world and her story as a social entrepreneur in Afghanistan has been told many times. But this is a new chapter. Perhaps the most difficult one. A new beginning in a country that has always been complex, but which today is experiencing what in jargon is defined as a “Complex Emergency”.

“The banking system has collapsed, the health system doesn’t work. One in two people survive thanks to humanitarian aid. That’s 20 million people. More than half the population lives below the poverty line, on less than $1.25 a day. And the third year of droughtthere is fear for the agricultural harvest”.

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The crisis is total. There are emergencies in every sector. The country is in extreme conditions. “I took a sabbatical to figure out how to keep a light on Afghanistan and I went back to doing startups.”

Two projects that Selene launched in this period. And both are about women. The first is a telephone switchboard that provides training and technical support to female entrepreneurs. “A mobile phone is accessible to 80% of women while the Internet has a penetration ranging from 8 to 15%. And I assure you that this is innovation.” The second is “one tool library“, where you can borrow a machine, then bring it back as you would a book.

“In an extreme context like Afghanistan, there is a possibility: which is to create micro-businesses within the home. It is called entrepreneurship of necessity and is permitted by current provisions. In technical terms, these women are defined as “necessity entrepreneurs”. 10% of Afghan families – according to United Nations data – support themselves with this means.”

Let’s take a step back. A social entrepreneur, Selene launched her first startup at the age of 22 with just 150 euros. She arrived in Afghanistan as a United Nations volunteer in 2009 and a few months later he lost some colleagues in a terrorist attack. He understands that he wants to act like him and looks for a different way of doing things. Meanwhile he finishes a master’s degree in Ireland.

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Then in 2013, he returned to Kabul and opened the Qessa Academy, a school for storytellers, where children can recover their traditions and use storytelling to find work and create development at a local level. The school remains open for 7 years. When Kabul fell in August 2021, taken by the Taliban, she evacuated Afghan families to Italy and with local friends then created an informal network to support over 1,500 people. When women ask her for help to be able to work, she lancia She Works for Peace. At the end of 2022 he resigns from his job at the United Nations and takes a sabbatical. He learns the Dari language and starts looking for partners, companies, donors to carry out the projects he had in mind. “I sent a thousand emails, I asked dozens and dozens of contacts. I participated in events and made pitches everywhere. Until I found support.”

The first project was born thanks to the Intesa Sanpaolo Charity Fund. “Is called Bale Khanomwhich means: Hello, ma’am. Responding are six Afghan women whom I personally trained, three hours a day for many months. They are girls who graduated or previously studied at university. We receive hundreds of calls a week from all over Afghanistan. Inaugurated in mid-December 2023, the switchboard has already received over 1,200 calls. They ask us how to find customers, how to calculate product prices or access financing. They ask us for business starting ideas and encouragement. They are women of all ages. From 15 to 60 years old”.

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The second project is called Abzaris a tool library in Kabul, a physical space where women can to take in loan of sewing machines, looms, tools, utensils for production and when they are finished, they return them. “I started working on this idea two years ago, after seeing a video in which some Afghan women who had just finished a sewing course said: we are so poor that after the course they offered us we don’t even have the money to buy needles. So as soon as I found help from the Rotary Club of Ferrara and the Estense area club, I left”

Selene is one of the 99 role models, Alumnae of Bocconi University, included in the brand new progetto “Changed by Women”: a book, a fundraiser for new female students and a mentoring program, which will be presented at Bocconi in Milan on 8 March. The intent is to inspire new generations, telling the stories of women who have overcome obstacles and difficulties to realize their dream. For the social impact of her work, Selene has received over 60 awards including the Rolex Awards for Enterprise and Mother Teresa Memorial in India, an award already awarded to the Dalai Lama and Malala.

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Why are you doing it?

“It’s a question I’ve often asked myself recently. I’ve been working with Afghanistan for 15 years, but in the last two years I’ve seen a radical change from every point of view. And it’s not just because of the historical events we saw on television Twenty years of foreign presence in the country, twenty years of the international community that has tried in many ways to do something, have not changed things. When I opened the school it was 2013: there was literacy around 26 %.When I left in 2022, depending on what data you looked at, literacy was hovering between 30 and 35%.Billions of dollars had been poured in. That huge change that we all believed in hadn’t happened. I felt an enormous feeling of disappointment. And at the same time I had dozens of women in front of me asking me: will you give me a hand? Will you help me? You’re not going to leave me? Before their eyes, I felt the need to do something.”

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Are not you scared? “There is a proverb in Afghanistan that says, the world survives on hope. In English it is even more beautiful: “The World Lives on Hope”. The world lives on hope. I assure you that even in a place like this where there it’s desperation, difficulty and suffering, there’s a lot of hope. And what you do today maybe one day will have results you don’t expect.”

“I’ll tell you a story. When I opened the school for storytellers, it seemed like a bizarre thing. Many people came to visit it and talk to the students. Everyone asked the same questions. Why do you study here, what do you like about the school, how do you see yourself as a once you finished. And the students always answered the same things: we have scholarships, they help us learn our tradition and find a job. And these were our goals. But one day a boy gets up and says: “In a country like Afghanistan, being young is not an added value. Nobody cares what we think or what we have to say. But after six months in this school, I’m no longer afraid to stand up and say what I think. I realized that I too have a voice and I can make it heard.” Now, that was a great life lesson. When you play even a small part, the results can go beyond expectations. Today we are simply offering a sewing machine to a woman. Maybe in a year she will be able to send her children to school. And her life will perhaps be simpler. There is a phrase by the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson that says: ‘You will only be successful in life when you have made one person’s life in the world easier‘. The verse of this poem has always inspired me and continues to do so…”

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