Hedvig Christine Alexander intends to help Afghanistan rise

The Huffington Post – 08/26/2013

The fact is — had Hedvig Christine Alexander not met a certain Canadian — she would have stayed in Afghanistan pursuing a great passion in nation-building.

She has had an interesting and diverse journey in many places – with the Danish Army, the UN Development Programme and now – as owner of a Canadian based social enterprise – Far & Wide Collective. She shares with me the wisdom of being part of a movement for positive change – here at home and abroad.

You have had an interesting life having served in many international arenas. Tell me about your journey so far
In 1992 – just after I had completed high school, I joined the Danish Army where I was part of a special unit where I was taught Warsaw Pact military tactics and Russian. I spend two years being trained as an officer and went to Moscow shortly thereafter to work for the Danish Embassy. The army gave me many things including passion and discipline.

I left Moscow in 1996 to attend business school and studied business and philosophy. Then – this was a new program that intended to collaborate the teaching of alternative solutions and micro economics to the business community. Then the next phase of my life took me to the Republic of Georgia as a UN Peace keeping Officer. I was the only female officer among 106 officers and I became a Pakistani General’s assistant at aide-de-camp. I remember the first day when I stood next to the General as he was defending a military coup that had just happened in Pakistan in front of peacekeeping officers in the mission.

Share with me your time in Afghanistan
After my time in the Republic of Georgia – I went to Yale University in New Heaven for my Master’s Degree. Right after that, I went straight to Kabul and stayed for seven years. Had I not been swept away by a Canadian, I am sure that I would have stayed in Afghanistan.

I often tell my husband that I have this feeling (although one never knows what will come in the future) that my seven years in Afghanistan will prove to be the most exciting and formative years of my life. It was incredible to come as a young person and be part of such a nation building (or rather rehabilitating) effort. There was something extraordinary about everybody there having the same objective – getting Afghanistan back on its feet.

There was strong camaraderie and close friendships were easily formed. I rented a big mud house with 8 others from an Afghan family – it had a beautiful garden and the most incredible roses. The sounds of the city at dusk when hot summer days were cooling and the call for prayer at dawn – it was magic – despite the troubles. Afghanistan is a very striking place – beautiful in a harsh sort of way. I felt that living in the intense way we did made us see things clearer.

I saw how people grew when they are given opportunities. Many of my former Afghan colleagues and friends have made astonishing progress. It is a place with a lot of human capital. If given the opportunity – despite much hardship – it will be a stable country one day.

Tell me about – Far & Wide Collective
I started Far & Wide Collective because I, after almost a decade in Afghanistan and the region, felt that the biggest obstacle to artisans and small craft businesses was access to international markets. This matters because the craft sector is the second largest employer, after agriculture, in most developing countries. It represents an opportunity for thousands–millions even–to earn a living and own their own business.

Moreover, crafts are often made by women, who rank among the most vulnerable in many of these societies. Crafts do not usually require literacy or formal education, but rather concrete skills passed on from generation to generation. In even the most deeply conservative countries, craft production allows women to participate in the economy, empower themselves and lift their families out of poverty.

Despite exponentially growing demand, an abundance of artisans and a wealth of authentic, unique and handmade products, artisans in Afghanistan and other low-income countries have very limited access to markets beyond the local bazaars. Mainstream retailers worry that sourcing from emerging-market artisans is too risky. Online platforms that currently carry crafts such as etsy.com and notonthehighsreet.com tend to only work with producers who are computer literate, can read and write, can process credit card payments, and have access to reliable postal systems. This excludes most talented artisans in emerging markets.

Far & Wide Collective is addressing this problem with a business model that enables systematic market access for artisans and small craft businesses in emerging economies by tackling challenges such as product design, logistics, content development, marketing and sales. We are still a new and small company, but we have a big vision.

You also were involved in Building Markets in Afganistan

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to start the first Building Markets project in Afghanistan in 2006. At that time – it was a think tank based in Ottawa, started by Scott Gilmore and Kabul became its first stab at implementation. The Kabul project was a reaction to a study that had uncovered that in all peace keeping missions the UN and the international community were involved in, only very little of all the money that went into these missions – such as Kosovo, East Timor – actually benefited the local economy.

The objective of the organization was to promote local procurement of goods and services to boost local business, employment, tax revenues and the Afghan economy. We did this by helping Afghan businesses understand international organizations such as the UN, the international armies and later NATO procurement needs, systems and requirements. We also build a database putting on-line all small, medium and large Afghan businesses so that procurement officers from various organizations could go on-line from their offices to see what in fact could be bought in the country.

We also match businesses – for example introducing some of the best farmers and produce producers to a new five star hotel in Kabul. We strive to make sure that local products are bought as much as possible. In our first year we generated more than $180 million for the Afghan economy and in the following years much more – a great part of this was through getting the US army to buy locally bottled water instead of flying it in from Dubai. Today Building Markets has officers many places in the world. It aims to support entrepreneurs, business and industry in post war economies – economic growth most often lead to more stable, prosperous and peaceful societies.

Why is it important to empower Afghan women
Apart from being passionate about human rights in general and seeing how badly Afghan women and girls are often treated – it is also clear that societies with equal participation from both women and men in the workforce are much more prosperous. Afghanistan cannot afford to keep its women hidden away. Afghan women are incredibly hard working, resilient and entrepreneurial. I have seen shy women with little education grow into dynamos when given the chance.

The international community has to think very carefully about how to keep pushing for a better life for women. We also have to reflect on how we can best preserve the gains we have witnessed in the past decade. I don’t think that there can be sustained stability and economic growth in Afghanistan without involving Afghan women to a very large degree.

Why should Canadians care about international developments in countries such as Afghanistan?
I don’t think that we can afford not to care as the world today is more interdependent. Having whole regions – Afghanistan – Pakistan, Syria or Palatine – Israel and Africa in trouble and in conflict makes the world less stable and less safe for all of us. The transmission mechanisms from these regions to the rest of the world are intimate and proven.