Meet Zahra, the Hand in Hand trainer fighting Covid-19

When Zahra started working for Hand in Hand six months ago, the 25-year-old thought she’d be training women to run their own micro-businesses, helping them thrive in the long term. Now, as the country braces for a Covid-19 crisis some experts fear could be globally significant, Hand in Hand’s youngest trainer finds herself fighting for their short-term survival instead.

“It’s a very heavy responsibility and we feel a sense of fear. If someone has the virus, it’s difficult to control it,” says Zahra. “On the other hand, it’s a pleasure to help our people, who are really in need and live in poverty.”

Across Hand in Hand Afghanistan the story is the same, as the entire organisation retools – seemingly overnight – to respond to the threat of the virus. Between thousands of members living in hard-to-reach areas, deep bonds with local officials, and a senior management team with decades of humanitarian experience, Hand in Hand Afghanistan is uniquely well-suited to help. So when a government lockdown caused the suspension of our usual training on 30 March, we were ready to adapt and keep fighting.

Phase One of Hand in Hand Afghanistan’s Covid-19 Emergency Response kicks into gear on 5 April, as teams fan out across Parwan, Balkh and Herat Provinces delivering soap, chlorine solution and virus prevention training to some 26,000 people. Fundraising for Phase 2, where we hope to at least double that number, is underway now.

“We consider it our duty to inform people about methods of prevention. We can save lives,” says Zahra. “I had dozens of members who weren’t aware about the coronavirus and how to reduce the risk of infection until I told them.”

Handwashing time for Sharifa and family.

Sharifa, 24, was one of them.

“Zahra told us about coronavirus and how dangerous it is,” says the mother of four young children. “She gave me and other women health instructions such as not to go to crowded places; to wash our hands repeatedly with soap many times throughout the day; to use a mask and gloves, which we have for our poultry farm, if we go out in public; and to cover our mouths with a cloth when we sneeze.”

With no health services in the area, Zahra worries that Hand in Hand’s is the only help Sharifa and thousands more like her will get. “And even if they can make it to the public hospital in Mazar, we know their capacity is very low. They don’t have the equipment to cope,” she says.

One day, Covid-19 will pass – a global health crisis leaving a global economic crisis in its wake. When that day comes, Hand in Hand will be ready to help our members work their own way out of poverty, the same we have since Day One. Until then, we’re fighting Covid-19 with everything we’ve got.

“The second thing I worry about right now is the financial aspect,” says Sharifa. “The first thing is our health.”

By the numbers

4,000 households reached

26,000 Afghans provided with soap and chlorine solution

20 minutes of virus prevention training per household

‘Girls will be successful’: Hangama, Hand in Hand trainer

For 15 years, in more than 10 countries, among millions of members, the story has been largely the same: learn from Hand in Hand’s training and start a micro-business as a tailor, shop owner, agri-business owner or more. Not so for Hangama. Instead of starting her own small business like other members, she decided she wanted to join our team as a trainer — helping other women like her.

“Being a trainer for Hand in Hand provided me the opportunity to serve other women in my village and this makes me happy,” she said.

The 23-year-old went from being a trainer to a livestock vocational trainer and is now a Head of Association in the Chemtal district of Balkh province in Afghanistan. Also known as producers’ groups, Associations are made up of Self-Help Groups who join together to buy in bulk, access value chains and more. Not only is Hangama our youngest Head of Association ever, she’s the first female Head of Association, too.

Balkh Province, Afghanistan

Ready for success

Only 19.4 percent of women in Afghanistan are employed, according to the International Labour Organization. The United Nations’ Human Development Report notes that just 8.8 percent of women aged 25 and up have a secondary school education, as women only attended school for an average of 1.6 years.

On a daily basis, Hangama is responsible for the success of nearly 900 people, with more than 100 of them being men. She chairs meetings with government officials twice her age. She negotiates with private companies to help beneficiaries tap into value chains. She manages administration duties. And more.

Gaining the people’s trust

Hangama takes a lot of pride in the work she has accomplished as a leader. “There is a lady almost 60 years old who runs a poultry farm. She is one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our community. She has earned so much from the business that she helps her son’s family [and grandchildren]. She has also expanded her business, and is encouraging other women to work.”

It isn’t all smiles, nor is it easy to accomplish all that she has. Hangama admitted it takes time to build trust with every woman and entrepreneur — getting community members to know what an association is and how it can help them, and to spread awareness. Other challenges include what might be deemed as the obvious: security and instability of the district in which she’s working in Afghanistan.

“There is a threat of security and women are afraid to step up and work,” Hangama said. “If women work, it is behind closed doors.”

The other major challenge, Hangama explained, is simply being a woman in her conservative community, dealing with the misbelief that women can’t and shouldn’t work.

With the difficulties, however, come the rewarding aspects of her job. She said the best part of her role is serving her community and other women. More than anything, she wants the women of Afghanistan to know that they are capable of starting a small business, as are the future generations of the country.

“I encourage women to educate their daughters, believe in their daughters and provide them necessary support,” she said. “Girls will be successful.”

Thanks to her role with Hand in Hand and her income, she has been able to help her husband, who works as a tinsmith, expand his business and she even decided to enrol in university hoping to become a businesswoman in the future.

Hangama’s results

Became Head of Association

Responsible for 900 members

Gained trust of the community

Chris, training slum dwellers in business

Chris Mwaniki is one of Hand in Hand’s business trainers working in Kawangware, a Nairobi slum about 15 kilometres west of the city centre. Here, in just three square kilometres, some 800,000 work, live and play, eking out a living on less than US $1 a day. Water on tap is not available every day and safe drinking water is expensive. Disease is rife, especially HIV and malaria.

Local hero

Like many of his colleagues at Hand in Hand, Chris studied co-operative management. Two years into his job and responsible for coaching around 400 Hand in Hand group members, he clearly enjoys it: “Working with the community is the best thing I have ever done.”

Portrait of Chris MwanikiA former Scout leader, he has always volunteered in community projects and was keen to continue with social work. “I meet different people – some are rude, some are good, some are kind. I feel that now I can speak to anyone and make a difference.” The most challenging part of his work? “I am out in every weather, visiting up to four groups a day and following up with individuals, in the heat, the cold or the rain.”

Some people are harder to train in financial literacy and business skills than others. “I have some clients who may not even have been to primary school. At first they only know about waking up, looking for food for the day, and that’s their life, so it can be difficult to get through to them.”

But in most cases, he feels he is making a tangible difference. “I was able to teach the groups about financial discipline. They may know how to use numbers, but not how to figure out how much they can afford. They are so used to just thinking about making enough to eat that day. Now they understand the point of having at least a small reserve for an emergency,” says Chris.

‘A good teacher’

Irene Wanjiku, one of Chris’s trainees, says about him:  “I had a business before but it was Chris who advised us to move away from our old shop because the rent was just too high. And he was right, in the new shop we will pay so much less rent. He is a good teacher. ” Thanks to Chris’s intervention, Irene’s monthly income will increase from 5,500 to 9,000 Kenyan Shillings (around US $105) a month.

“Working with the community is the best thing I have ever done”

Chris Mwaniki and his firend sitting on a bench

Chris has found working with Irene and her group really inspiring: “The moment I met them, I admired how they survive. They taught me that by being a hard worker you can do anything. They don’t have an education, they don’t have a job, yet they are very creative, they have ideas for a business, they believe they can make it.  It’s all about determination – they know what they want. People around them might do drugs, or give up.

“The moment I feel like giving up, I think of them. If they are making it, then who am I to give up? It really motivates me.”

Meet Palwasha, the trainer who returned home

Hand in Hand Afghanistan entrepreneurs aren’t the only ones making a difference. Across the country, in a growing number of provinces, trainers are too.

Take Palwasha Rafiqzada (pictured above, left). In less than a year, the vocational trainer has instructed 154 women in five different villages on skills as varied as poultry rearing and knitting. It’s a small contribution to the thousands of jobs created by Hand in Hand Afghanistan, but one that Palwasha finds hugely fulfilling all the same. “I’m proud to work with poor women toward a change,” says the 41-year-old. “These women have been stripped of everything by civil war and poverty.”

An uphill battle

Palwasha (left, trainer) and Tella Group member - KnittingShe isn’t exaggerating. After 35-plus years of near-continuous conflict, Afghanistan is the tenth poorest country in the world, with a child mortality rate of 99/1,000, the highest outside sub-Saharan Africa, and a maternal mortality rate of 460/100,000, the second-highest outside sub-Saharan Africa. Insecurity at the hands of the Taliban other groups continues.

Like so many others at Hand in Hand Afghanistan – from fellow vocational trainers to CEO Abdul Rahim Nasry – Palwasha knows first-hand just what that can mean. In the late-1990s, as the Taliban spread into north Afghanistan, the mother of six was forced to abandon a career in education and seek refuge in Pakistan. It was there, in a crowded immigration camp, that the graduate of Sayed Jamaluddin Afghan University learned how to sew, knit and rear poultry – skills she still teaches today.

“I’m proud to work with poor women toward a change. These women have been stripped of everything by civil war and poverty”


Hand in Hand hires local field staff exclusively. Beyond suiting our ethos of self-reliance – and helping keep expenditures low – the practice means trainers are invested in their work.

Palwasha (left, trainer) and Tella Group member - Knitting

Palwasha returned to Balkh Province after the Taliban fell in 2001. Her husband found work as a doctor’s assistant. She found work with several NGOs, including a stint as poultry team supervisor at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, before joining Hand in Hand more than a decade later in May 2013.

It’s work she has every intention of continuing. “The women I work with face many problems – poverty, a lack of education, inadequate life skills – but by the time they graduate I find them strong and enabled,” says Palwasha. “When they start to earn money they improve their position in the family and in society.”

Balkh Province, Afghanistan

Editor’s note: Palwasha no longer works for Hand in Hand.