Geopolitics

Female Entrepreneurs Fuel A Changing Iran

Nazanin Daneshvar, CEO of Iranian e-commerce company Takhfifan
Nazanin Daneshvar, CEO of Iranian e-commerce company Takhfifan
Sophie Fay

TEHRAN â€" She could be the future of Iran.

It has been a long parade of investors and foreign CEOs in the office of Nazanin Daneshvar, a young female engineer who founded the e-commerce company Takhfifan (Persian for “discount”). She welcomes such visitors, and foreign journalists, who have come to Iran to discover a country as hopes have risen that the international economic sanctions will be lifted.

With her beige-and-black Hermès scarf, a long black jacket over her beige pants and flat-heeled shoes, this Internet start-up boss is making sure not to break the dress code imposed by the Islamic Republic. Even when she travels abroad, Daneshvar doesn’t remove her scarf, well aware that she has become the symbol of a country that wants to change â€" but at its own pace.

In a small building in northern Tehran where Islamic militia members, the Basiji, can scarcely be found, she tells the story of Takhfifan, which has grown to 60 employees (80% of whom are women) in seven cities around Iran.

Her employees are working hard to bring price reductions to the million of customers for restaurants, concerts, hotels or spas thanks to group deals, in what is the biggest tech company in Iran to be run by a woman, boasting some 10,000 partnerships with retailers.

But success didn’t come easy for this Tehran Polytechnic University graduate, who cut her teeth as a computer science project manager for five years in London and Berlin. Once she launched her company, it took several years and a constant push for media exposure to finally be taken seriously.

“When I started five years ago, I was 26 and I had to bring my father to business meetings and introduce him as the CEO of the company," Daneshvar recalled.

She has now become a mentor at the Avatech start-up incubator, set up inside Tehran’s main university. This project caught the eye of President Hassan Rouhani’s economic advisors. Two years into his presidency, he has ambitions to develop the country’s private sector, which represents barely 15% of the national economy.

Old economy, new economy

Iran has been welcoming back members of the diaspora who return home to invest in the private sector, like Saïd Rahmani, founder of Avatech. This banker organized a competition for new start-up companies, following the model for Silicon Valley innovation.

Female entrepreneur success stories in Tehran are blossoming. Looking for the tastiest eggplant caviar or the most exquisite chicken with nuts and pomegranate sauce? You can order those at Mamanpaz.com, a website founded by Tabassom Latifi that allows you to order homemade dishes prepared by Iranian cooks. Other websites are dedicated to providing parents with the necessary survival kit to raise kids or beauty and cosmetics advice.

“It’s all about female entrepreneurs,” quips a young man at the “Afterworx” party organized in a French restaurant inside Tehran's lavish Palladium commercial center, where serious networking of entrepreneurs and potential investors takes place.

Out of Iran’s population of 80 million, 60% are under 30 and and 70% live in urban areas. And nowadays, there are more females than males in higher education. All these factors make for a very lively and productive sector and that pleases Parissa Porouchani, who created Bazaarnegar 21 years ago, a leader in Iranian marketing research for international companies like Danone, Henkel, Sony or Samsung.

Porouchani learned her trade in France, where she spent 18 years. When she came back after the Iraq-Iran war to take care of her parents, she faced many difficulties. At that time, it was much harder for women to find their place in the economy, and many of the smartest ones pursued academic careers even if it meant wearing clothes that followed the conservative dress code imposed by the regime.

“I didn't want to stay at home," Porouchani said. "I wanted to take matters into my own hands, this is why I created my company.”

The task was far from being easy in the begining; in Iran, seeking out opinions for market research is often synonymous with “spying.” Her work agenda must be submitted to and approved by the state on a monthly basis. The first appointments she managed to obtain were because of the clients’ curiosity more than anything else: They wanted to know who was this woman who sent them mail and offered them a new type of service. Ultimately, she found her audience.

Even if she was actively following the progress made at the Vienna talks about the nuclear program, she would never discuss politics. Foreign companies have since established contact with Bazaarnegar, anticipating the possible opening of the national market.

“We are currently conducting a dozen reasearch projects a month. If suddenly we jump to 25, we will need to restructure the entire company,” Porouchani says.

Waiting is hard

Mina Fakhari, CEO of Nina Salon which supplies Koodakoo, a website specialized in baby products, is waiting impatiently for an agreement. Paradoxically, Nina Salon is a familial company founded in 1955. It is one of the main suppliers of Tehran’s bazaar and should have everything to fear of a possible market opening and the resumption of international relations.

Rumor has it that because of the economic sanctions, the bazaris â€" businessmen close to the regime â€" and some pasdarans â€" Guardians of the Islamic Revolution â€" grew extremely rich by controlling the import channels. Inflation rose by 40% a year. The government and the Central Bank reduced it to 10%. Fakhari explains simply that "power is in the hands of the suppliers.”

Inside Nina Salon, there are some items that give away the opulence in which certain Iranian citizens live. A four-meter high (13.1 inches), 5-meter wide (16.4 inches) princess castle ready to be sent to some little girl’s bedroom. In the basement, VIPs are introduced to the children's line of clothing of Italian designers Fendi and Roberto Cavalli. This is bling-bling Tehran style.

“What is happening in the field of new technology draws attention to the place of women in the economy, but the situation has been improving for years,” notes Daneshvar.

Farzaneh Kharaghani, editor of the financial daily Jahan Eghtesad, has seen the same trend. She created the Iran Council for Female Entrepreneurs, that today has 80 members across different economic sectors. She welcomes the government’s promise to have 30% of women in its highest ranks.

Bijan Ghodstinat is the (male) founder of the nationally-acclaimed tomato sauce Chin Chin. He set up a start-up incubator in the basement of a villa in the very trendy city of Darban, where 17 out of 24 current members are women. “Iran’s future is within the hands of its daughters,” he declares.

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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