The Afghan people have seen many upheavals in the past year — the end of the US occupation, the Taliban regaining control, and sanctions. However, it was the 5.9-magnitude earthquake that really rallied Afghans all over the country to reach out and help the thousands of victims.
According to reports, the earthquake in the southeastern provinces of Paktika and Khost resulted in at least 1,100 fatalities and more than 1,500 injuries. Those numbers startled Afghans inside and outside the country and spurred them into action, as groups of volunteers headed towards the remote districts of Gaiyan, Spera, Barmal and Orgun.
One of the first ones to set out from Kabul was the team behind ‘Aseel’, a mobile app originally designed to sell Afghan-made handicrafts to global markets. Over the last year, they have transformed the app to become an aid distribution and fundraising platform in response to the sanctions, banking restrictions and aid cutbacks that were imposed on Afghanistan.
International Finance caught up with Nasrat Khalid, the founder of ‘Aseel’ mobile application, who shared his insights about the app, emergency packages, ‘Atalan’, and much more.
Excerpts from the interview:
International Finance: What is the idea behind the ‘Aseel’ mobile app?
Nasrat Khalid: In 2019, the Aseel platform, website, and iOS/Android mobile application were initially designed to support and connect Afghan artisans, especially artisans from rural Afghanistan. We enrolled over 100 small family-owned and women-owned businesses from all over Afghanistan and sold over 10,000 handmade products to people in countries like the US, Australia, and the UK. We used to ship all our products through DHL, International Shipping Service from Bagram Airbase before the fall of the republic of Afghanistan.
After Afghanistan came under a new regime, most of the enrolled businesses stopped. After a brief full pause in the delivery of products, we found ways of sending products cross-border to neighboring countries and then shipping them to the US and elsewhere. As a platform committed to supporting people and development, we decided to use the platform as a means to help Afghan people. At that time, organizations such as the United Nations, the Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee, the World Food Program, etc., were unable to do money transfers, transportation, and human resources, in such a high-risk environment ‘Aseel’ went beyond and came up as a helping hand to Afghan people.
Aseel launched its emergency response (ER) (now called Aseel Do Good) program and has distributed aid packages to 62,241 families and 4,35,687 individuals in 28 provinces of Afghanistan. The Aseel mobile application and website allow people to purchase necessary aid packages and our team on the ground will deliver them to families in need inside Afghanistan.
Also, ‘Aseel’ enables people to support specific families inside Afghanistan through “Aseel Beneficiary Forms.” This option is best for those who have relatives or their families who are still living in Afghanistan. The donor fills out the Aseel beneficiary forms, receives a beneficiary ID (called Omid Hope IDs), and then donates any aid package. The Omid ID helps both the donors and the beneficiaries track the delivery of the aid packages. Furthermore, ‘Aseel’ also engages people worldwide to create fundraiser campaigns to support people in Afghanistan for more significant community distributions.
IF: What do you offer to your users?
NK: We offer two features to people: First is ‘Do Good’ which enables anyone, anywhere in the world, to directly send aid to Afghans transparently. And second is ‘Buy Good’ which enables anyone, anywhere in the world, to buy handmade products directly from Afghanistan and receive it in homes in the US, Canada, and Australian markets.
IF: You played a significant role in helping people during the earthquake in June. Tell us about it.
NK: On June 22, 2022, around 1:30 AM, a massive earthquake shook eastern Afghanistan (AFT). Over 1,000 people died, and 1,500 suffered severely. Due to the earthquake, homes and livelihoods were destroyed, and many family members were homeless. Aseel mobilized assistance and provided essential services to survivors.
Our emergency response team began distributing the first batch of 1000 gifts to those in immediate need of assistance while documenting and identifying the recipients in the disaster-affected areas. Aseel launched a Grand Challenge (GC) in affected areas. The aim was to raise USD 150,000 to buy a portion of exceptional food, hygiene, and life packages for the earthquake-affected households. We managed to raise USD 150,000 and supported over 1,000 people. We were on the scene before any other rescue groups to assist people.
IF: Take us through the emergency packages that your app offers.
NK: The aid packages were designed based on our research from the ground and the people’s needs which include emergency food packages, emergency medical packages, emergency baby care packages, and emergency life packages. The platform also allows people to donate a certain amount of money and let Aseel decide on buying the boxes for the affected families. Packages include flour, oil, rice, beans, slabs, chickpeas, macaroni, salt, sugar, tea, and milk. The sanitary package includes paper, pads, masks, disinfectant liquid, a box for children in the north, milk, diapers, clothing, and winter aids.
IF: Can you tell us about young Afghan volunteers ‘Atalan’ and what role they play?
NK: The success of Aseel is all because of ‘Atalan’ (volunteers), who provide insightful local knowledge and real-time humanitarian updates. These brave individuals are minimally compensated for their time and transportation costs yet help verify beneficiaries and deliver aid to families, both integral to Aseel’s operations. During the transition, well-known organizations such as The United Nations and Red Cross could not operate within the country due to the high-risk environment coupled with a lack of transportation and the inability to transfer funds. Aseel’s Atalan excelled as individuals and was among the first to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan through the Emergency Response program.
IF: Can you tell us about your different campaigns and how they benefit Afghanistan’s commoners?
NK: Aseel is collecting donations in the form of crowdfunding from all over the world on the platform and is reaching the needy in Afghanistan. All campaigns are created to benefit the people of Afghanistan. Campaigns range from support to the ultra-poor in the form of food packages to support for education, women empowerment, and so on.
IF: Tell us about your distribution channel. How can you reach out to local people?
NK: We have organized teams of volunteers (more than 150 individuals) in different provinces of Afghanistan that can support the dissemination of these emergency packages and a group of volunteers out of Afghanistan that can help us make partnerships with donors, media agencies, social media, and so on. Aseel enables anyone from anywhere to help an individual or family in Afghanistan.
IF: How do you plan to take ‘Aseel’ global?
NK: We know that our fintech system, which was in place way before this crisis started, custom solutions development, and global connection with the rest of the world is much better than large-scale international development institutions and charity organizations. At the same time, we are an Afghan company that was born out of Afghanistan and went on to try to become a global company. This means that we understand scaling and growth from a startup perspective which is an excellent fit for the current situation. Our Atalan platform provides the local infrastructure for communities to take action while connecting to the rest of the world.
Moreover, the vast handmade market is estimated to be around USD 1 Billion in value and backed by the worth of companies such as Etsy (USD 16 Billion). While most of the world’s handmade items are created in underdeveloped countries, there is no infrastructure to support them. We believe Aseel can quickly fill this gap as we expand into other countries.
IF: You have tie-ups with more than 100 brands. How do you manage to attract them?
NK: We have a local team that enrolls vendors; we have photography studios to capture the products and their photos. In addition, our “Atalan” volunteers get paid based on each product they add to our platform and the sales they receive.
IF: What are your plans for Aseel?
NK: We are planning to do two things, first is to enable anyone, anywhere in the world, to support anyone, anywhere in Afghanistan, which we are planning to do 100% transparently. For this, we are registering people who need support and providing them with Omid IDs. After doing this we will map them with resources from the international community.
Secondly, we are planning to empower women and all artisans to sell their products globally. Our company can create Ten thousand jobs in Afghanistan in the next three years, and we believe that, amongst other sustainable efforts for Afghanistan, even our contribution can change the direction. Our company can bend this curve and return to getting Afghanistan on the right path.
For Aseel as a technology company, though, we want to be a publicly traded company and expand the operations to other countries that need help. So many disasters in the world leave innocent people affected, but no functional system takes care of them. Aseel can be that!