Virus wipes away Afghan toilet-paper maker's expansion plans

KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan toilet paper entrepreneur Zuhal Atmar overcame patriarchy and security threats to build a business that was set to go global due to a coronavirus-induced shortage. 

But then, the supply of her key raw material – trash – dried up.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a lockdown in Kabul, forcing scavengers off the streets and slashing access to the waste paper and cardboard which Atmar recycles into pink-and-white loo roll.

As she prepared to suspend operations at her factory, she told Agence France-Presse the virus was "the biggest challenge" she had ever faced.

"Even while dealing with security risks, we were still able to do business. Now I have no option but to throw my hands up," the 35-year-old said.

Her plight highlights the global nature of the pandemic which has disrupted lives across the world, posing a huge challenge even to businesses used to working under sharp constraints.

A rare female face in Afghanistan's male-dominated business world, Atmar is well-versed in the art of finding creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

When the government imposed the lockdown to stop the spread of infections last month, she promptly approached local hospitals offering to barter their waste paper for surplus masks she had purchased before the crisis hit.

"But the discussions didn't go anywhere," she said ruefully.

'Scary threats'

As a female entrepreneur in a country where women have long battled to have their voices heard, Atmar fought hard to build her company Gul-e-Mursal ("Damask Rose").

"To get a loan, you need a guarantor, a business partner, and of course collateral," she said.

"Women don't usually have access to any of this – men have better networks and in most cases, family property goes to sons, not daughters, so there's no collateral," she added.

Her background as a consultant to international organizations in Afghanistan helped Atmar overcome some early challenges, with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) giving her a $100,000 loan to purchase equipment from China.

She also ploughed her savings into the business, but more difficulties lay in wait.

A lack of qualified technicians meant Atmar had to hire specialists from China and Pakistan to help run the complex machines that wash, pulp, dry, and transform cardboard and paper waste into loo roll.

"Electricity is always a nightmare," she said, referring to hours-long blackouts that prevented the factory from functioning at full capacity, even before the lockdown.

And then there were the "scary threats" she received, allegedly from male competitors.

"It's not easy to do this. It needs courage," she said.

When she first visited the recycling factory – located in a conservative, run-down Kabul neighbourhood – 5 years ago, she didn't see a single woman on the streets.

Today her company is 30% female with women working on the factory floor, in marketing, and as paid interns.

"I want to hire more women...because I can understand their problems, the difficulties they suffer," she said.

Mother to a 4-year-old boy, Atmar said Afghan women are forced to make difficult trade-offs in pursuit of their dreams.

"The social mentality here will not allow any woman to have it all because her ambition is considered to be at odds with ideas of family life," she said.

Born into a upper middle-class family – her mother was a teacher – Atmar had little doubt that she would pursue a career, even as her life was upended by a brutal civil war.

The family fled to Pakistan and only returned to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Dreams dashed

Before the lockdown, Atmar's company processed 4 tons of waste in a day, a fraction of the 7,000 metric tons of garbage collected daily by Kabul's municipality, underlining the scale of the city's trash problem – and the potential for her business to grow.

Expansion loomed on the horizon earlier this year as global demand for toilet paper surged in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the panic buying it sparked around the world.

Atmar struck a deal to sell her products in the US and Europe, but now, with the factory set to run out of raw material, that seems all but impossible.

"We can't even buy the chemicals we need anymore because they are not available in Kabul and the borders are closed so we can't import it easily from Pakistan," she said.

Now, the factory will likely be shut for several weeks at least, she said.

With the fate of her 70 employees hanging in the balance, she said she was desperately hoping for a miracle to resume production as soon as possible.

"I know that behind every successful woman is a story with many ups and downs," she said.

"It is not easy to keep going but we will reopen again." – Rappler.com