From the Afghan goat herder to your cashmere sweater
Autumn, it is that time of the year when leaves turn red and start falling from trees, kicking-off a brand-new cycle. And as the temperatures are plunging, the flowy and light summer fabrics are replaced by cashmere sweaters and scarfs that keep the warmth. Whether your cashmere sweater or scarf comes from your favourite local shop or was a gift from your favourite auntie, have you ever wondered: what is cashmere? where does it come from? Or, for the most curious, could there be any links between your cashmere sweater and an Afghan goat herder living hundreds of thousands of kilometres away from your home?
To answer these questions, we’ve sat down with Karim Lagha, Program Manager at PUR Projet. Karim has been managing the cashmere program, a five-year impact-driven program implemented in collaboration with Oxfam and supported by the Burberry Foundation aiming at improving herding communities’ livelihoods through the development of the cashmere supply chain in Afghanistan.
So, first thing first, what is cashmere?
Cashmere is a soft, silky smooth and warm fibre often used in luxury goods manufacturing (sweaters, scarfs, coats, etc.) thanks to its exceptional properties. This valuable fibre is produced by cashmere goats. These goats have additional smaller follicles from where the cashmere fibres grow in addition to their hair which grows from the deep follicles in the skin. Cashmere is a down-like undercoat taking the shape of very fine fibre. Therefore, cashmere is structurally very different from the coarse hair of the goat, it is thinner and softer.
Goats start growing cashmere in late summer, it reaches a full length in winter to protect the goat from colder temperatures. When the weather starts to get warmer in spring, cashmere is naturally shed by the goat, the fibre can be then harvested by the goat herder.
Where does cashmere come from?
Afghanistan is the third cashmere producer in the world behind China (world leader representing approximately 70% of world production) and Mongolia. There are more than 7 million goats in Afghanistan (some sources estimate it at over 10 million goats), from which around 95% are cashmere producing.
How does cashmere go from a goat to a sweater or a scarf?
Many actors are involved in the transformation of the cashmere fibre to go from goat hair to a cashmere sweater. After cashmere is harvested by the herders, it is sorted, scoured, dehaired, dyed, spun and woven, before being manufactured into a sweater, a scarf, a coat, you name it! This process involves many different actors located across several geographies. All these actors make up the cashmere supply-chain.
In a nutshell, the Afghan herders and their goats are right at the beginning of the supply chain, and your sweater at the local shop is at the other end.
The program activities have been designed to have a positive influence across the Afghan cashmere supply chain, from the goat herders to the local government.
How can cashmere improve Afghan herders’ livelihoods?
The Afghan government estimates that 42 per cent of the country’s total population lives below the national poverty line. Another 20 per cent of the people live just above that line and are highly vulnerable to the risk of falling into poverty. Also, according to the World Bank, four out of five poor people in Afghanistan live in rural areas. At the same time, although Afghanistan is the third cashmere producing country, today less than 30% of cashmere is harvested from goats in Afghanistan.
This means that there is considerable potential for goat herders’ communities located in rural areas of Afghanistan to better value this product naturally produced by their goat and earn a better living to lift themselves out of poverty.
This reality led the Burberry Foundation, together with PUR Projet and Oxfam to launch a five-year project in 2017 to develop a more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient cashmere industry in Afghanistan. The program helps herders to enhance their ability to earn a living and cultivate a more prosperous local supply chain to benefit communities in the long term.
Program activities seek to promote community resilience, alleviate poverty, and create better links between cashmere producers and markets to further social and economic development.
Focusing on the Herat and Balkh provinces, two of the main cashmere producing areas, the program aims to positively impact the lives of over 300,000 people over a five-year implementation period. The initiatives are designed to have a long-term impact by fostering strong links with the government, markets, and the private sector, as well as engaging new funding partners for the continuation and expansion of the program beyond 2022.
The program activities have been designed to have a positive influence across the Afghan cashmere supply chain, from the goat herders to the local government. The activities are structured around three main key objectives:
- Creating an enabling environment which strengthens the ability of goat producers to harvest, process and sells cashmere;
- Broadcasting a national radio program to share vital information with goat herders in an entertaining and engaging way
- Influencing the Afghan government to implement a policy introducing new standards for the Afghan cashmere value chain
- Improving herder’s livestock management by working with goat producers on breeding, feeding and animal health;
- Directly engaging cashmere producing communities in a training program, which educates herders on animal health, welfare, breeding, cashmere harvesting and trade
- Establishing local infrastructure to support animal health and nutrition, including improving access to veterinary services and promoting better pasture care
- Establishing a breeding farm in Herat to introduce a centralized elite flock of cashmere goats, who will in turn breed with local goats to improve the quality of cashmere over time
- Strengthening cashmere market linkages in Afghanistan and establish stronger bargaining power for cashmere herders.
- Organizing goat producers into collective producer organizations at community level and forming a network of these organizations at a district level. These networks bring local herders together, allowing them to collect cashmere in bulk for collective bargaining and sales. This will improve herders’ influencing power with business and government.
What is the Burberry cashmere program impact to date?
Since the program began in January 2018, we have seen early impacts on local communities. To date we have:
- Formed five district cashmere producer groups and 268 cashmere village groups, actively working to address challenges facing the industry and seek better prices for their cashmere to improve their household income;
- Trained 6,751 herders on sustainable cashmere harvesting and livestock management, educating and empowering herders to reap the benefits of cashmere;
- Engaged with local authorities and government for the creation of a policy framework to both improve the Afghan cashmere industry and prices on the international market;
- Over 6,400kg of cashmere has been sold in Balkh and Herat in the last year (since March 2018). The cashmere was sold at a higher price compared to the baseline assessment (up to 30% higher in some project areas);
- Launched a national radio program, with the aim to reach over 100,000 herders, providing them with vital messaging on cashmere harvesting, animal welfare and the cashmere industry;
- Enlisted five local vets to offer tailored support to cashmere herders in the Balkh and Herat provinces;
- Together with their local livestock specialist partner NGO Dutch Committee for Afghanistan, PUR Projet designed and established a new breeding facility currently hosting more than 400 goats, improving the quality of cashmere fibre, through goat distribution to cashmere producing villages In Herat and Balkh.
What is the future of the cashmere program?
The cashmere project aims to improve the resilience of cashmere herding communities by creating a more sustainable supply chain to sell their cashmere to. This need for resilience has come into greater focus in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted communities worldwide. The project has established structures which aim at supporting the herders for the long-term, including the establishment of the breeding farm that is supporting the improvement of the cashmere quality at the local level; and has empowered herders to organize themselves into self-sustaining collective producer groups to bargain for better prices and strengthen their links with cashmere buyers.
The next step is to assure these organizations can grow financially independent and scale-up to have a broader impact on livelihoods in Afghanistan beyond the program’s lifetime. The teams are currently having conversations with actors involved in the cashmere supply chain to build potential partnerships with the cashmere producers for the sale of their produce.
The team behind the project, together with all stakeholders (herders, field partners, local government, the Burberry Foundation and Oxfam) are working to assure the long-term sustainability of our collective actions for improved livelihoods in Afghanistan. To learn more about the project, please visit: https://www.burberryplc.com/en/responsibility/cashmere.html
Images by The Burberry Foundation and Joël van Houdt.
Karim manages the impact-driven program implemented for the Burberry Foundation striving to positively improve cashmere herders’ livelihoods and supporting the development of cashmere supply chain in Afghanistan, he is also part of PUR Projet’s socio-environmental auditor team operating for a luxury account across five continents.