Herat Carpets Beaten by Man-Made Imports

Traders complain traditional handicrafts being swamped by cheap competitors.

Herat Carpets Beaten by Man-Made Imports

Traders complain traditional handicrafts being swamped by cheap competitors.

Abdol Satar, a 28-year-old carpet seller, huddles in his shop, wrapped in a blanket against the bitter cold as he waits for customers.

"Come on, brother," he calls out to everyone who passes his shop in the city of Herat in western Afghanistan. "I have all kinds of top-quality carpets."

But not many people take him up on the offer.

"Until three years ago, when there were fewer imports of foreign carpets and poor-quality raw materials, I would sell around 50 carpets in a day," Abdol Satar told IWPR.

In those days, he says, his shop was so busy that he never had a chance to sit down and have lunch until four in the afternoon. These days, he is lucky if he sells ten or 15 carpets in a month.

Weavers and traders say that the market in Afghan carpets, which are well-regarded for their designs and natural materials such as silk, wool and plant dyes, is under threat from cheaper, machine-made imports from Turkey and Iran.

Hand-woven rugs once provided one of Afghanistan's major exports. But the trade declined during the conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s, with many weavers shifting their businesses to Pakistan after settling there as refugees.

Some 80 per cent of the weavers are women, making the trade a vital source of income for many families.

Among them is Zarmina, 38, who has spent almost half her life weaving carpets. She complains there are no longer customers for the items she produces. Even though she is the main breadwinner for a family of seven, she is considering giving up weaving.

"In the past, the buyers would pay me in advance for still uncompleted carpets. Today, I take my carpets to the market many times a week, but they will only buy at prices that don’t even cover my outlay," she said.

"I am so fed up that I may leave the industry if I can find another job, because I can’t earn enough to cover my family's costs through carpet weaving."

The traders who sell the raw materials for rug-making are unhappy with the collapse in the trade. One such shopkeeper, Mohammad Yunus, says most weavers buy their materials from him on credit and pay him only after they have sold their carpets.

The weak state of the market means his repayments are being delayed.

"When the weavers used to borrow the materials from me, their carpets would sell quicker and at better prices [than now], and they’d pay me back on time,” he said. “However, the weavers haven’t been making good sales recently, so they’ve been unable to pay me for months. When I ask them for my money, they complain that their carpets haven’t sold. And I am making a loss…. I know I am about to go bankrupt.”

Roughly three out of every five carpets made in Afghanistan are exported.

On the domestic market, imported machine-made rugs are sidelining the more expensive Afghan carpets. And the Afghan rug industry faces its own quality issues because of the increasing use of inferior materials, which again come in from abroad.

Khalil Ahmad Yarmand, deputy head of the chamber of commerce in Herat, says it is up to Afghanistan’s quality standards agency to monitor the quality of such imports. But the only office is far away in the capital Kabul.

"To curb imports of low-quality products and fake goods, we have asked the commerce and finance ministries several times to set up standards offices in provinces that have borders and trade routes, but unfortunately these requests have been ignored," said Yarmand.

Torialai Ghawsi, deputy head of the carpet industry association in Herat, says that despite the complaints made by weavers and sellers, sales are actually improving.

"Carpet exports from Herat province were more than 250,000 square metres last year, while the figure for this year [2009] was 450,000 square meters," he said.

Herat carpets went to Germany, the United States, Belgium, India and Tajikistan, among other countries, he said.

At the same time, he said, government could be doing more to promote the rug trade.

“Our policymakers are still neglecting the expansion of the industry," he said.

Yarmand is among those who believe a dose of protectionism could help sustain Afghan carpet makers, through the imposition of high import tariffs on items that can be produced domestically.

It is a view shared by economist Mohammad Ibrahim Foruzesh, who says the absence of customs controls and quality standards encourages traders to bring low-grade, cheap goods.

"If high taxes are imposed on imports of Iranian and Turkish carpets, they will be priced higher than Afghan carpets," he said. "People will then go back to hand-made Afghan carpets again and traders will refrain from importing foreign ones."

As well as protectionist measures on the border, Foruzesh wants the agriculture and commerce ministries to cooperate to support traditional handicrafts and prevent them from dying out.

Mohammad Shafi Ferozi is an IWPR-trained journalist in Herat.

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