Startup entrepreneurs: We need to help Estonian-nurtured Afghan talents


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The Estonian government and Garage48, a startup organisation organising tech hackathons, have invested hundreds of thousands of euros and thousands of working hours into nurturing Afghan tech talents via development programmes – yet, these people, most of them young women, are not among the people to be evacuated from Afghanistan with the help of the Estonian government; Garage48’s host and advisor Joao Rei is now calling to help these people and make them see light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

When the Taliban entered Kabul, Madina was in class at the university. “Suddenly a teacher came to the class and warned us to leave the university as soon as possible. Thousands of people – men, women and children were in the streets seeking for transportation to get home as soon as possible. Hundreds of people were in front of the bank to get their money. My phone’s battery was empty and my family couldn’t reach me. My elder brother got to the university to look for me and finally I got home at midnight after walking more than seven kilometres (4.3 miles – editor) on my feet.”

More than 100 young women

Madina (22) (for safety reasons, we don’t mention the surnames) is one of hundreds of young Afghan women whose lives were touched and changed by Estonia’s contribution to the development of Afghanistan in the recent years.

Less than two years ago, in December 2019, the Estonian startup organisation, Garage48, organised a hackathon “Empowering Women” in Kabul with funding from the Estonian foreign ministry. More than 100 of the 165 participants were young women. Two Afghan-led accelerators, ASARA and Startupistan, provided follow-up support for the winners.

In December 2019, Garage48 organised a hackathon “Empowering Women” in Kabul, with funding from the Estonian foreign ministry. More than 100 of the 165 participants were young women. Photo by Garage48.

In the first spring of the COVID-19 pandemic, Garage48 also organised an online hackathon, Hack the Crisis, with 400 participants from all Afghan provinces, providing them with 4G access via SIM cards.

Even in 2019, the conditions of organising a hackathon in Kabul were a far cry from the usual start-up buzz. “There was already a long line of participants waiting behind the door when we arrived at 7:30 AM on Tuesday morning because the security control for entering the building was even more thorough than at most airports,” the CEO of Garage48, Mari Hanikat, remembers.

The organisers managed to merge the teams with similar ideas and ended up selecting 16 teams that entered the three-day-long prototyping competition. Finally, the winners were selected. A plastic waste removal solution and a gynaecology app developed by an all-girl team were among the top teams.

Team Gynecology App, the only team at the hackathon that consisted of only female professionals. Photo by Garage48.

Dastyaar, a job platform for freelance developers and designers was the overall winner – awarded with a trip to Estonia to attend Latitude59, an annual startup conference. Then COVID-19 brought the world to lockdown and the dream trip never happened.

Little prospects for the future under Taliban

Mari Hanikat says that what they saw in Afghanistan in the winter of 2019 filled them with hope for the future of the country. “Our participants were amazing, intelligent and creative Afghan women. Dedicated, well-educated and entrepreneurial, the youth of Afghanistan seemed poised to lift their country from the dust.”

Following the Taliban’s reconquest of Kabul, Garage48 leaders have been talking to some of the former participants over the last couple of days. “We fear for so many of our friends who find themselves with little prospects for their future. With the current situation, we are at risk of losing so many bright minds,” Hanikat asserts.

Madina, one of the participants of the hackathon, had joined the Kabul university in 2017 to study computer science. “It was the first time for me to study with boys in a class and as a single girl, I realised the potential threat to my life as there are many restrictions on girls to go to university. My family and I were receiving unwelcome marriage proposals and as we refused, our lives were directly threatened,” she recalls.

Madina could only dream of playing basketball. During four years of her study, she witnessed many difficult situations inside and outside the university. Especially, the incident of a suicide bomber attack on Kabul University on 2 November 2020 when three gunmen stormed the campus of the university, killing 32 people and wounding 50 others. But despite all hardship, graduation was now only months away.

Since Taliban took over Kabul, Madina has not left her home. “My family and I are desperately sitting at home and waiting for our turn to come – to either be killed or be taken as sex slaves by the Taliban forces.” She says they are eager to serve their people and country using their knowledge and experience – but considering the situation, they do not want to pay the ultimate price and are desperately looking for ways to escape Kabul.

On the second day of the Taliban’s rule in Kabul, the front of Hamid Karzai International Airport was crowded with people trying to travel abroad, but were stopped by Taliban militants. Photo by VOA, public domain.

Madina’s friend and classmate, Sadia (21), is also worried about her family and her friend. “We have won many international and national awards – achievements in computer science and programming industry together. I worked with an organisation for empowering of women in technology industry and as a youth ambassador, appeared on social media and TV channels. That makes us targets for Taliban,” she says.

Sadia hopes to resettle in another country. “If that be Estonia or any other country that can offer refuge – it would be the biggest and vital help for us.” Her dream is to become an entrepreneur and to be “her own boss”.

Another participant of the Estonian-organised hackathon in 2019, seventeen-year-old Ahmad, says “Kabul smells like gunpowder and the people are tired of war.” Ahmad started his entrepreneurial journey at the age of 14 and has already joined as a trainer and mentor in many global events and hackathons – he is the pride of his family.

Ahmad’s dad has served the US government, so his family is hoping to evacuate to the US. “We had a happy life like other Afghan people; we had ambitions, hopes, and passion for our homeland to serve, but now many youths have lost this inspiration and they are trying like us to leave the country and go abroad,” he notes.

Call upon tech companies to hire remote tech workers from Afghanistan

Estonia has invested hundreds of thousands of euros and thousands of working hours into nurturing these talents via development programmes. Yet, the partners of Garage48 are not among the people to be evacuated from Afghanistan.

Joao Rei, a host and advisor with Garage48, is disappointed that the West has spent many years raising hopes and ambitions of this new generation of Afghans, yet now leaves them behind. “With the help of the Estonian foreign ministry, we have trained and educated women in tech and entrepreneurial skills. We’ve dared them to dream high. And now, we leave them behind. As we see the Taliban take over and the country crumble, so do their dreams and aspirations,” he says.

Joao Rei (left) with the winning team at the Garage48-organised hackathon in Kabul in December 2019. Photo by Garage48.

Rei calls upon tech companies in Estonia, Europe and the world to hire remote tech workers from Afghanistan. “There’s talent there that is waiting to be unleashed. Give them a chance for a better future, make them see a light at the end of a very dark tunnel!”

Read also: Estonia must offer its former Afghan partners a safe haven – no ifs, ands or buts

Cover: In December 2019, Garage48 organised a hackathon “Empowering Women” in Kabul, with funding from the Estonian foreign ministry. More than 100 of the 165 participants were young women. Photo by Garage48.

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