The brutal conflicts and oppressive regimes that have characterised the past 30 years of Afghanistan’s history have come at a cost measured in both human lives and economic development.
In the midst of this turmoil is Roshan, the troubled country’s largest telco. While operating in a perpetual state of warfare throws up serious risks, Roshan says that by developing telecommunications services, it is enriching the everyday lives of Afghans.
Karim Khoja, the company’s CEO, is a South African-born, British-educated Afghan. He helped set up Roshan in 2002, just months after the Taliban government was deposed by Western forces. Years of extremist rule and conflict had left the country’s telecommunications infrastructure in ruins. “When I first came to Afghanistan, you had to walk 700 km to make a phone call,” Khoja recalls.
Rebuilding this infrastructure posed some unique and dangerous challenges. “Every time we built a base station site, first we had to clear all the landmines, and then we had to build all the roads around it,” he explains.
Alongside widespread violence, government corruption is one of the biggest challenges to operating in Afghanistan. “We have more run-ins with government officials seeking bribes than we do with the Taliban,” says Khoja. “We have had equipment stuck in customs for months because we will not pay government officials a bribe.”
But Roshan now supports services that it hopes will help to remove the blight of corruption in the Afghan economy.
For example, Roshan’s mobile payment system, M-Paisa, is now used to pay Afghan police salaries. Previously, officers were paid in cash only. “When the money eventually got to the police offer, his salary had seen some ‘leakage’ as it went down the chain,” Khoja recalls. On average, police received $30 per month out of a $150 salary as corrupt seniors siphoned much of it off, he says. The cash is now deposited electronically in their M-Paisa account, and officers can withdraw the money at local merchants.
The Roshan network is also being used for telemedicine services. Doctors performing surgery can now be guided via videoconference by more experienced surgeons across the border in Pakistan. “That specialist would probably not come to Afghanistan because of issues of safety and danger. In real time, they are now able to aid a patient,” says Khoja.
Another service provides farmers in the country’s rural areas with up-to-date pricing information on their produce. “This makes a huge difference to their lives,” Khoja argues, “as they can find out the price before they go to sell it at the bazaar.”
Maintaining the infrastructure to support these services against a backdrop of military conflict is no simple task. “We spend around $4 million every year on rebuilding [base station] sites,” claims Khoja. This comes directly out of Roshan’s bottom line, he adds, as no-one will sell the company insurance.
More critically, the safety of its employees is also in question. In 2006, an Indian contractor employed by the company was abducted and murdered by the Taliban. Khoja says that the incident was an exception, and its policy of refusing to pay “baksheesh” has meant that its workers are mostly left alone. “Three of our employees were recently kidnapped by the Taliban,” he says, “but when they saw they worked for Roshan, they released them immediately as they know we don’t pay bribes.” The Taliban nevertheless exerts its influence over the company’s operations. “Drive ten minutes south of Kabul and you’ll get stopped by them,” says Khoja.
The Taliban requires the company to switch off about 150 of its base stations at 19.00 every night, for religious reasons. “That costs us $14 million in revenue every year,” Khoja reveals. Roshan is now Afghanistan’s biggest employer, with more than 1,100 workers. It is also the country’s largest taxpayer, and its service has 80% coverage within Afghanistan.
The company’s majority shareholder is the non-profit Aga Khan Development Network (the UK’s Cable & Wireless is another) and it runs an extensive community programme that includes providing laptops to local schools. However, Roshan is first and foremost a commercial operation. And while Afghanistan’s present situation is undeniably grim, Khoja says that Roshan’s infrastructure investments today will lead to long-term benefits in the future, both for the country and for the company.