A conversation with Fereshteh Forough, founder and president of Afghanistan’s Code to Inspire
Born in 1985 in Iran as an Afghan refugee, Fereshteh Forough spent her early years traversing borders and exploring how computer science could help solve global problems, especially for women. Forough is the founder of Code to Inspire, a nonprofit coding school for girls in Herat, Afghanistan that helps young women improve their technical literacy.
With three-year-old Code to Inspire, as well as her previous nonprofit, Digital Citizen Fund, Forough has explored using cryptocurrency to pay students and mentors as a way to guide them toward financial and social independence.
At Coinbase, we’ve been fans of Forough’s work for a long time. We asked her to share her thoughts on how technology—and crypto specifically—is empowering young women in her home country.
“When I took the entrance exams for university [at Herat University in Afghanistan], I chose law, journalism, and economics. Two months later, I got the results: I had been placed in computer science. I was so upset!
One of the first days, there was an introduction to algorithm problem-solving and QBasic. I loved it. In my life, I face a lot of problems. On a computer, I can face problems and solve them. On the internet, you don’t need a passport. There are no geographical boundaries or limitations.”
“In early 2014, when I was working on my previous education nonprofit, a blogging-for-pay platform, I learned about cryptocurrency. We decided to do a pilot project sending bitcoin to our students, to see how it worked. We created wallets for the girls; all they needed was an email address. Sending money was fast, and there were almost no fees at all on transactions.
One of the main challenges I face in my work helping girls in Afghanistan is getting them paid for the work that they do. None of the girls have bank accounts — people in Afghanistan don’t really trust banks. Also to have a bank account, you need a lot of ID, which a decent amount of people in Afghanistan don’t have. And we don’t want to send the money to family members, because with a lot of these girls, their families just take their money. One thing that’s great about crypto with this community is its privacy.”
“In Afghanistan, women aren’t part of the conversation. They don’t have a platform to make decisions or raise their voices. With Code to Inspire I wanted a place for women to not be shy, to be creative, to do whatever they can’t do outside of their homes. Our students learn to code by taking on outsourcing projects like graphic design, mobile apps, and simple software development. We started with 50 girls in 2015, then added another 80 in 2016. We recently graduated our first 25 students, all high school girls.
I want to create a safe space where women feel welcome and accepted. I want them to have a way to make an income, the same way my mom learned how to make dresses when we were refugees in Iran.
I run Code to Inspire from Brooklyn, where I have lived since I left Afghanistan because of my immigration status. I do Skype calls monthly with all the classes and the girls, so that can they see I’m an actual person. Every day the girls tweet about their work and take a screenshot of what they’ve made.”
“Honestly it’s been difficult to convince people in Afghanistan to take cryptocurrency instead of cash. We’d explain that this was currency over the Internet, but they didn’t believe us. They thought we were taking their money, or tricking them. We had to demonstrate that bitcoin could be useful. Students could come to us and we would convert their bitcoin into Afghanis. That’s how we proved to them that this was real currency. But for us, it didn’t feel safe to carry around that much cash all the time.
After that first pilot project, we stopped paying our students in crypto — students faced too many challenges when it came to accessing and spending it. That said, some of the teachers who work with our students earn ether (ETH) through work they do through a partnership with the Bounties Network, which allows people to accept ETH for fixing vulnerabilities for businesses.”
“I see a lot of people trying to solve problems around payment and crypto. But to be honest, all of these projects ignore conflict zones. What they create usually serves the privileged: people who have bank accounts, countries with good infrastructure.
This may sound crazy, but maybe the solution could come from one of our students. Maybe one of these girls could make a blockchain project, or a coin, or whatever, that could tackle that problem.”
Learn more about Code to Inspire at codetoinspire.org. The 501c3 accepts donations in dollars, bitcoin, and ether.
As told to Amy Standen exclusively for Coinbase; transcript edited and condensed for clarity.