Afghanistan seems a painfully familiar setting to most Canadians: a hot, dusty wasteland filled with hidden dangers and perpetual grief. Yet when Saber Fermand looks at Afghanistan, he sees something quite different. He sees a land of opportunity. Fermand is president of the Canada Afghanistan Business Council, an organization dedicated to improving business ties between the two countries. Afghanistan is full of prospects for trade, he says. But despite considerable military effort, Canada has so far ignored his country’s profit potential.
The owner of a Persian rug shop in Kitchener, Ont., Fermand has made two business trips to Afghanistan already this year. Travelling throughout the relatively calm northern and western regions, he heard from many small-business owners eager to sell their products abroad. It was his first trip to his homeland since he left in the late 1970s ahead of the Russian invasion.
Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, could conceivably replace illegal opium as a mainstay of the Afghan economy, notes Fermand. “Everywhere I went, people approached me looking for ways to sell their saffron,” he says. Marble is another potentially lucrative resource. Recently the U.S. military announced the country may hold an estimated $1 trillion in untapped mineral wealth.
Investors from Europe, China and the U.S. are already well represented in Afghanistan, says Fermand. Canada is not. “Canada has done great things for Afghanistan. But Canadian companies are missing out on business opportunities,” he advises.
Aside from the economic advantages of greater trade, Fermand promotes the cultural implications as well. He sources many of his rugs from Afghanistan and understands the industry intimately. Weaving was once a female-dominated industry, but decades of war destroyed many other occupations and pushed men to rug-making as well. Allowing women to reclaim their role would free men to take other jobs, giving Afghan women more independence. “All families are stronger with two incomes,” he says.