Craft business

Shoshana Stewart: Pioneering Craft Business in Kabul

According to Shoshana Stewart, CEO of Turquoise Mountain, the cornerstones of sustainable craft business are energy, beauty and pride—terms not often emphasised in development work. In this episode we go to Afghanistan, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, taking ‘roads less travelled’ to see how Turquoise Mountain harnesses master artisan skills and launches a new generation of craft business.

NOTE: To get the full story, we encourage you to listen to the episode. The following episode notes serve as a guide, explaining what we cover in each section. Fast forward to hear more about specific topics and sections.

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Walking across Afghanistan

[6:50]

So, it’s 2006, and Shoshana arrives in Kabul to volunteer with a newly formed organisation. Turquoise Mountain, as this organisation was called, was founded by HRH The Prince of Wales to revive historic areas and traditional crafts in Kabul.

The once glorious capital city had played an important role in world history, architecture and crafts since antiquity. To get things going, Prince Charles dispatched Rory Stewart, a British diplomat, politician, author and explorer, to Afghanistan.

Rory had just completed a solo trek on foot that lasted more than eighteen months and took him through Iran, Pakistan and the Himalayas of India and Nepal. The walk also included a 36-day walk across Afghanistan. Rory typically walked 20–25 miles a day and stayed in villages houses every night. When Rory arrived in Kabul to set up T M, he knew a thing or two about the country’s repository of wonderful historic buildings and he’d already started things rolling.

In academic circles, Turquoise Mountain’s approach would be called a community-based integrated development project.

When Shoshana landed in Kabul, her first stop was an old gated compound. Entering the gates, she saw two pairs of legs dangling off an old brick wall. The first belonged to an Afghan mason who was wearing loose shalwar kameez and a glorious black turban. The other was Rory, a Scot properly dressed in brogues.

It’s safe to say that Rory and Shoshana hit it off. The two later married .. but, that’s another story. Let’s continue with the story of Shoshana’s first days in Kabul ..

Shoshana in Kabul, the early days

[12:03]

What Shoshana just described was the clearing of The Great Serai, a former merchant compound in Murad Khane. A historic market and commercial hub on the banks of the Kabul River, Murad Khane dates back to the early 18th century, when the Afghan King Ahmad Shah Durrani granted the land to members of his court. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Murad Khane was a flourishing bazaar and trading hub, and its residents built houses with intricately carved wood and plaster decoration.

One of the most spectacular was the merchant home known as the Great Serai.

Once Shoshana, Rory and the team cleared the rubble, they uncovered beautifully carved cedar wood and original sliding windows. The Serai compound is now home to the Turquoise Mountain Institute, where the organization runs its crafts institute, clinic and school in Kabul. How did Turquoise Mountain’s aim to revive historic areas and traditional crafts come together?

From master artisan to craft business

[34:39]

In academic circles, Turquoise Mountain’s approach would be called a community-based integrated development project. How does this jargon play out on the ground? A cornerstone of Turquoise Mountain’s approach is building relationships. This means building trust. Addressing needs identified by the community. Listening.

The last one is particularly critical. It’s about listening to those who are vocal and those who, for any number of reasons, are reluctant to speak. Opening a clinic and a primary school weren’t on the agenda, but working side by side with the residents of Murad Khane, it became clear that a clinic and a school were needed, both for the service they provide and as a place where mothers and children could share their perspective and experience.

Where to next?

[38:01]

Fifteen years in, Turquoise Mountain has restored over 150 historic buildings, trained over 6000 artisans and treated almost 136,000 patients in their Kabul clinic. They’ve supported and generated over 15.5 million in sales of traditional crafts to international clients. And, Shoshana, who came to Kabul as a volunteer looking for adventure and purpose is the organization’s CEO.

These days, in addition to Afghanistan, Turquoise Mountain also has projects in Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Syria is on the horizon. Shoshana shares a little about how the idea to expand came about.

Interestingly, she points out that each locale has its particular focus, but the synergy of working in several countries has worked well for the organisation’s sales and marketing approach. In the end, any community development project the organisation takes on must fulfill the Turquoise Mountain’s ethos of energy, beauty and pride.

Find out more about Turquoise Mountain

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