At 8 a.m. every morning the women in Deh Naw village, Balkh Province, tend to their eight cows – they started their business with a herd half the size and next year they hope to increase that number to 12.
The cows produce about 80 litres of milk a day, which the women collect and turn into cream, butter, yoghurt and cheese.
Enjillah Alimyar, the head ‘shura’, or community leader, said that regular customers were now coming to buy their dairy products directly from the source.
“In the market, they are tricking the customers by diluting the milk they sell with water. Our milk is the real thing,” Ms Alimyar said.
The initiative is one of 32 gender projects under a broader programme to improve access for rural communities to markets in four northern provinces of Afghanistan.
Funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and supported by UNOPS, these small-scale ventures are creating jobs for women in tailoring and embroidery, wire basket weaving for construction, knitting, baking, wool spinning, and keeping livestock and poultry.
“The most important part is that these projects are being implemented by the communities themselves, from planning the initiative, to submitting the proposal and doing the actual work,” said UNOPS Regional Engineer, Noorullah Hakimy.
“By encouraging the communities to take the lead, we are creating a greater sense of ownership among local people and empowering women to be more independent by way of generating income for their families,” he continued.
After receiving training from UNOPS on how to market their produce at the local bazaar, the women in the dairy are making about $50 in profit each week, which is a significant amount in their remote village.
Meanwhile, in Dawlatabad district centre, the community is building a toilet block for men and women next to the site of the local bazaar, which draws crowds of 10,000 people twice a week.
“Before, the people used to urinate in open places, which was not very polite or hygienic. This new facility will be very useful for our community,” said deputy shura Mohammad Saboor.
The toilet block, which will be fitted with a water tank and solar pump to power the lighting, will be particularly important for women visiting from the neighbouring 56 villages who previously had no other toilet facilities available to them on market days.
In Shahab Turkmania village, the 20 women who used to work on the farm, collecting wood and cultivating crops, are now spinning wool to buy oil, rice, school books and other necessities for their families.
"They are very happy to be working inside instead, especially now that the weather is getting cold and the days are shorter," said shura Ajamal Murdi.
"Lots of changes have come to the women's lives. Each week they have a meeting to talk about women's rights and other topics. All the women here are very happy with the project from UNOPS and SIDA," she added.
UNOPS is constructing and rehabilitating 683 kilometres of roads and about 20 bridges under the SIDA-funded Rural Access Improvement Project, which began in 2007. By making rural communities better connected, the project aims to reduce regional disparities, support equitable growth and improve the living standards of Afghans in the north of the country.