When Sara Wahedi thinks back to May 9, 2018, it began as a calm, sunny day. But as the Afghan-Canadian social entrepreneur, now 26, was walking home from the president’s office in Kabul, where she worked, people started running past her in panic. Some were screaming that there was a suicide bomber.
“His vest is not working,” one man yelled during the scramble. Ms. Wahedi only had a moment to react and started running as well. Seconds later, she heard an explosion behind her.
She didn’t stop to look back and kept on running past the banks, shops, markets and people lining the bustling streets of downtown Kabul. She made it home just in time to see two more blinding explosions about 150 metres away. She watched from her balcony as they sent billowing clouds of smoke all around her now-decimated neighbourhood. She would later learn that the Islamic State had attacked a nearby Indian visa office.
The terrifying experience rattled Ms. Wahedi, but it also motivated her to start thinking about ways to keep Afghan civilians perpetually updated on security issues such as explosions, fires and gunshots – threats that could affect their safe access to a particular neighbourhood. From there, she started developing her Kabul-based civic technology startup, Ehtesab.
Ehtesab – the name means “accountability” in the Afghan dialects of Dari and Pashto – is a mobile app that sends users real-time security alerts (in the aforementioned dialects and English) according to their location. Users can also report incidents, submit photos, pinpoint where the security issue is taking place and leave contact information in order to receive updates. The app was released just last year.
Now that Kabul has been plunged even deeper into chaos with the Taliban takeover, she has had to quickly pivot Ehtesab’s focus to keep the business in operation and protect her team. The app makes no mention of the Taliban in its security notifications, the identities of her female employees have been scrubbed and everyone on the team has stopped using their personal social media accounts. Right now, their strategy with security updates is to use words or sentences that may imply danger. For example, a roadblock indicates that citizens should avoid that area.
The Taliban have said little about access to technology and how social media will be regulated.
“The Taliban have become used to the internet. Either they will completely cut it off for everyone or not at all. But this is not realistic, as people will protest. They could cut off electricity, and that wouldn’t come to me as a surprise,” Ms. Wahedi explained. “It will become much clearer when the U.S. fully withdraws. Then we will see how much social media and the internet comes into play in their governance, how they will actually assert themselves as this more modern or flexible version of Sharia law, and how they want to keep a connection with the international community.
“So long as the Taliban do not restrict internet access, people will turn to Ehtesab for information and what’s going on in the city. This, especially if they keep on clamping down on journalists and people are forced to stay home.”
The app is still providing information about incidents that can affect citizens – roadblocks, electricity shortages, gunfire. The situation in Kabul remains fluid and chaotic, especially as thousands of citizens try to make their way to the airport to leave the country.
Ms. Wahedi’s core team is still in Kabul. She said it’s very difficult for those who have chosen to continue working. The city is stressful and full of uncertainty and fear, but the work acts as a distraction. She has been working to ensure her team members stay connected with WiFi, as they have all transitioned to working remotely. They are leveraging volunteers outside Afghanistan who have been recruited to provide extra support and keep pushing updates around the clock.
Her primary focus is getting her team out of the country, but none of them have visas. Some would not leave without their families. She is in contact with all of them every day to ensure their safety and provide support.
Ms. Wahedi’s family is split between Coquitlam, B.C., and Kabul. Every time she is in Canada, especially now, she worries about her team, friends and family back in Afghanistan. She grew up in Kabul but left with her family to come to Canada as refugees in 2001, after 9/11, and now has dual citizenship. She lives in Kabul, where she founded Ehtesab, for most of the year but is currently visiting family in Canada.
According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census, about 84,000 Afghans live in Canada, most in the suburbs of major cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. While Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan ended a decade ago, Ottawa is in the process of resettling hundreds of Afghan interpreters and others who assisted the Canadian military and has pledged to take in 20,000 Afghan refugees.
Ms. Wahedi knows, from experience, how hard their journey will be. But she believes that her traumatic experiences growing up as a refugee in Canada helped her become more adaptable when it comes to social issues. She is calm and well-spoken, but there’s a certain pain in her eyes as she speaks.
Being homeless at times, she has always dreamed big. “There are still moments that I think of the homeless shelters we lived in or walking for kilometres because we didn’t have money for transportation,” she said. She wants to take those big dreams and make them a reality across Afghanistan.
The entrepreneur started the company using $2,500 in savings. In 2018, she struck an online partnership with New York-based tech design entrepreneur Josh Worth, who helped her conceive the initial UX design for the Ehtesab platform. In 2019, she partnered with Farshid Ghyasi, the CEO of Netlinks, one of Afghanistan’s largest IT companies. Netlinks invested a further $40,000 to help build out the product.
A security app made sense to Ms. Wahedi because safety and security have always been issues in the country. “People in Afghanistan can’t just leave. I have the privilege of moving in and out of my country, but my team, for example, cannot. So, our focus [with Ehtesab] is addressing what our reality is and how we can make the best of it,” she said adamantly, using passionate hand gestures.
Ms. Wahedi draws inspiration from her mother, who worked two or three jobs at times to make ends meet. “By reaching for dreams that even society cannot imagine for me, maybe I will be able to provide my mom with a more wholesome life. Sometimes, it feels like the world is telling those who grow up in poverty or war that they are meant to stick to a specific part of society. I don’t believe in that whatsoever. I want to take advantage of my opportunities to make people like myself seen – and to change the status quo.”
The young leader also draws inspiration from her team, which includes developers and operations and marketing experts. They are mostly self-taught and, on average, under 25. When they initially joined, they saw technology as a way to beat the biases stacked against them. More than 63 per cent of Afghanistan’s population is under 25. Before this pivotal point, young voices were speaking out in a bid to change the course of the country.
Before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan’s startup ecosystem had seen steady progress. “Security and infrastructure can be hurdles for tech startups here. But the tech scene has grown so much over the past 10 years,” explained Jamshid Hashimi, a tech entrepreneur and founder of Afghanistan’s largest developers community, CodeWeekend. “For a country that is still in conflict, innovative technology would get Afghanistan to the levels where it should be.” This, of course, depends on whether a startup environment can still thrive under Taliban rule.
Ms. Wahedi hopes Ehtesab’s work can continue. “Our focus remains on accountability, whether it’s through an elected government or the Taliban. Through our work, we are going to keep citizens informed and hold everyone accountable as best as we possibly can.”
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