You might be surprised to hear that you can shop for fair-trade, handmade products from Afghanistan at Dubai’s City Walk 2 next week, but for the women launching the initiative, called Laala, the surprises began with flowers.
Tulips, to be precise.
‘The birth of Laala is quite an emotional story for me,’ says Michela Simone, who, with business partner and fellow Italian Chiara Bernardi, heard about a tender for a project that showcases luxury Afghan products and provides the makers with business support. They felt it was the right project for their communications consulting practice. ‘We wanted this project to have a soul and be meaningful by achieving more than sales and really changing the way people think about Afghanistan.’
‘To be honest, we didn’t know much about Afghanistan when we first came across the project. We were surprised to discover that there are fields of tulips across the country and that it’s the national flower. It felt poetic to name the platform after the Afghan word for tulip, because it hints at our aim of overturning common stereotypes about it being simply a war-torn country.’
The three-day pop-up debuts at City Walk 2, the new shopping avenue in the centre of Dubai, on December 8, selling clothing, jewellery, carpets, design pieces and gourmet foods. All proceeds from sales go back to the producer in Afghanistan, says Michela, who believes luxury shoppers now seek products that are sustainable and ethically made.
‘The way we have conceived of this project really rests on our belief that luxury today requires an ethical dimension,’ says the former Gucci PR. ‘It’s not just consumption for the sake of consumption but about respecting the environment, sustainability and fair trade. Of course, there is a challenge here, because it’s about building new business and consumer models for luxury goods based on ethical values. But we believe that today’s consumer wants to understand the value of what he or she is buying, not only from the standpoint of price, but in terms of what products represent.’
The items on sale come from businesses based in Afghanistan that produce and sell to local customers. Michela says Laala is ‘a meaningful retail platform that helps real people sell their beautiful products in a market that they would otherwise have no access to’, and at the same time, improves awareness of the country’s new generation of micro-entrepreneurs, many of them women.
Dubai was chosen as the first location for Laala to roll out, thanks to its long-standing trade relationship with Afghanistan – as well as it being home to one of the largest Afghan diasporas in the world.
The initiative is not only about selling products – it began on November 26 with a kite-making and flying workshop in Alserkal, a nod to Afghanistan’s love of kites. A cooking session to be held at Inked in Alserkal on December 4 further aims to share Afghan culture with UAE residents, inviting them to take part in making a modern Afghan menu.
‘I think that one of the easiest and most effective ways to understand a culture is through its food, as food is the single great unifier across cultures,’ says Michela of the free food event, which is open to the public through registration on Laala’s Facebook page. ‘Moreover, there’s just something about gathering around a meal that fosters a strong connection between people.’ The workshop is lead by chef Lina from Gudees restaurant in Abu Dhabi.
Laala works with USAid and its various projects such as Financial Access for Investing in the Development of Afghanistan (Faida), which helps entrepreneurs get access to capital, and develop business plans for loans. Another USAid project involved is Assistance in Building Afghanistan by Developing Enterprises (ABADE), which unites entrepreneurs in investment alliances.
Says Michela, ‘The entrepreneurs participating in this year’s Laala showcase are all here because they have a common goal of helping their country grow and a common vision of a modern, prosperous and safe Afghanistan. Many entrepreneurs were asked if they wanted to participate because they represent a new generation of skilled craftsmen and craftswomen, and innovative business-people, with amazing stories to tell with their creations.’