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Doing business in countries at war: the low-down

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An interview with Edmund Le Brun, co-founder of Ishkar, which curates craftsmanship from war-torn areas

Craftsmanship is unique and beautiful, but we tend to forget the hard route for handcrafted items to come all the way here... Can you tell us how this is made possible?
Not only is Afghanistan landlocked, its customs are some of the most corrupt in the world.

The World Bank consistently ranks Afghanistan in the bottom ten countries in the world for ease of doing business. The difficulty of exporting is one of the primary causes of this sorry distinction. Not only is Afghanistan landlocked, its customs are some of the most corrupt in the world. This means that we have to ship many of our products via air from a military base outside of Kabul. We pay a premium for this service. Unfortunately, its this premium which puts off many other potential businesses from wanting to trade with Afghanistan.

You have started working with Mali… Timbuktu is an ancient city with beautiful architecture and thus, we can imagine, a long tradition of craftsmanship. What are the types of crafts Mali is good at? What are the hurdles there in sourcing items? 

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Mali is home to a number of unique crafts. The main product we’re developing at the moment is with a type of textile called Bogolan. Indigenous to the Niger delta, the artisans dye organic cotton using rich mud taken from local river beds.

As with all the countries we work in the security situation is a major challenge. When we visited Timbuktu earlier this year, due to the presence of armed groups just outside the city limits, we were only able to spent 24 hours there. Developing partnerships with craftsmen takes time, and the precarious security meant we had to rush what would otherwise have been a much longer research trip. Since our visit to Mali all our communications have been via WhatsApp. This is better than email but no substitute for face to face discussions!   

You source items from Syria as well. In what context craftsmen and crafstwomen are working there and how do you make sure that you operate on safe grounds? 

In Syria we are working with an amazing Syrian social enterprise called Sabarra. Sabarra supports women in southern Syria who have been internally displaced by the conflict. As with Afghanistan, and Mali, our work is all about finding the right trusted partners on the ground. Our work without these local organisations would be impossible. 

In Herat we met Ghulam Sekhi – one of Afghanistan’s last remaining glassblowers.

You have met many craftsmen in your journey. Is there any particular story that moved you or someone that comes to mind? 

ISHKAR began with a visit to Herat in early 2016. In Herat we met Ghulam Sekhi – one of Afghanistan’s last remaining glassblowers. There used to be more than a dozen glass workshops in Herat, but Ghulam Sekhi’s is the last to survive. His mud brick workshop, sits at the base of Herat’s 12th century citadel. Watching him at work was like watching a scene which has barely changed in the last thousand years. It was an encounter which inspired us to launch our business. A week later we ordered 5,000 glasses from him, and they have become our best seller.

Ishkar is available to purchase online at www.ishkar.com or at the Koppel Project, 93 Baker Street, London W1U 6RL