• Business
  • Startups

How Afghan E-Commerce Startup Aseel Is Pivoting to Help Its Compatriots In Need

6 minute read

When Mohammad Nasir went to a camp for internally displaced refugees in Kabul for the first time, people swarmed around him, trying to get their hands on packages of food he was carrying. In the desperate scrummage, Nasir was dragged around and manhandled, his clothes torn.

“It’s a terrible feeling when someone is asking you for food and you can’t help because you have limited resources,” the 25-year-old says of that late August visit.

Nasir is a staff member of Aseel, an e-commerce startup that created a marketplace for rural artists in Afghanistan. The platform has enabled more than 400 artists to sell their handmade pottery, embroidery and jewellery to people around the world. Since the Taliban took control of the country in August, however, the company has switched focus to allow its global customers to buy food and medicine for Afghans.

“We are now using the supply chain that we created earlier to focus on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan,” Nasir says.

The situation is desperate. With a cash-strapped Afghan economy facing rampant food shortages and inflation, the United Nations has warned that millions of Afghans could run out of food as winter approaches. A million children face the risk of starvation and death if their immediate needs are not met and many rural areas may be cut off by snow as the bad weather sets in.

Read More: How Female Afghan Governor Salima Mazari Escaped the Taliban

The situation “is magnifying and accelerating at an incredible pace,” warns Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the Afghanistan country director for the World Food Programme (WFP).

To be sure, Afghanistan faced food shortages before the Taliban came to power. The country is one of the most vulnerable to the effects of rising temperatures, and has faced two major droughts in three years. According to the WFP, 14 million Afghans face food insecurity.

“In large parts of the country, farmers have just watched their lands and crops disintegrate into dust,” McGroarty says.

But the situation has deteriorated markedly since the Taliban seized power, forcing international aid agencies to evacuate their staff. Humanitarian aid flowing into Afghanistan has also slowed down as the U.S. and other Western countries figure out how to deal with a regime that they have fought for years. In late August, President Joe Biden’s administration froze Afghan government’s reserves, worth $7 billion, held in U.S. banks.

Aseel workers convene at Logar province, Afghanistan, for the distribution of food and medicines on Oct. 2, 2021Courtesy Aseel

Helping to rebuild the Afghan economy

Watching this crisis unfold in his country from afar in London, Aseel founder Nasrat Khalid knew it couldn’t be business as usual. The 30-year-old started the platform in 2017 to promote Afghan art. Having grown up as a refugee in Pakistan, Khalid had always wanted to use his self-taught coding and technology skills to help people in his country—and it was only natural to shift Aseel’s focus to humanitarian aid at this critical juncture.

“If there are tools to order food and get it delivered in 10 minutes, it’s also important to have a tool for people who were failed by the global system to get food for survival,” he tells TIME.

Aseel now sells emergency food packages—consisting of rice, flour, cooking oil, lentils and tea—which people from around the world can buy on the company’s website or app. They also sell first aid kits, diapers and formula for babies, as well as tents, scarves and blankets. The company uses previous relationships with vendors to source the materials. So far, Aseel has distributed food and medicines to more than 1,400 families across different provinces in Afghanistan.

Read More: The Man the U.S. Didn’t Mean to Kill in Afghanistan

The rapid pivot has meant pausing the company’s mid-term plan to add every Afghan artist to its platform by 2022, and create thousands of jobs in the country by 2023. “No one is going to be talking about the economy or trade now,” Khalid says. “You cannot build nations and institutions on empty stomachs.”

The company’s situation is emblematic of the plight of Afghanistan’s startup scene, which flourished in recent years and played a major role in creating jobs. But regime change has forced many startups to shut down or change their operations, fearing for the safety of their staff.

Aseel had to halt operations after the fall of Kabul. Most staff members stopped working for a few weeks as they tried to cope with their new reality. Some fled the country.

Many other Afghans who could have left have stayed back, however, among them Nasir—an only child with parents to look after. Watching people evacuate to safety wasn’t easy for him. But, he says, “I was waiting for the evacuation to end so that I could stop thinking about it and instead focus on working for Afghanistan.”

Before the rise of the Taliban, his job consisted of traveling to rural parts of the country to seek out artisans willing to list their products for sale. He took photos and wrote stories about the products, before assisting with shipping. “We were trying to bring a big technology revolution for Afghan artists, especially for women in rural areas,” he says.

Read More: How You Can Help the People of Afghanistan

He now spends most of his day scouting refugee camps and the neighborhoods of Kabul to find people in need of food and medicines. On weekdays, he works with his team to compile a list of people in need of aid, then processes orders and matches them with beneficiaries.

During the weekend, Nasir and his team go around the city to distribute packages. Outside Kabul, the company has a network of volunteers, among them artists they have worked with in the past, to find people in need of food and to distribute aid.

Nasir says he doesn’t know what the future holds for him and his country. But what keeps him going is the spirit of Afghans and the willingness of people to help.

“If nobody is going to take responsibility for our country and our people, it is on us,” he says. “Someone has to do it.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Abhishyant Kidangoor at abhishyant.kidangoor@time.com