Marcus Gee. The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont.
Jun 8, 2007. pg. A.25

The cellphone craze has helped seed the hard soil of Afghanistan’s economy

This struggling city is crawling with do-gooders of all kinds, from the United Nations to the Red Cross to Germany’s Goethe Institute. But it’s a fair bet that a single outfit has given more real aid to Afghans than all the humanitarian groups and foreign governments combined. It’s a sharp little cellphone company called Roshan and it’s doing wonders for Afghanistan.

Starting from nothing four years ago, Roshan has built itself into the biggest private business in the country, employing 900 people at good wages. It has invested $300-million in Afghanistan and plans to spend another $75-million a year. The taxes it pays supply 6 per cent of the government’s revenue.

It refuses to pay bribes, setting an example of ethical practice in a society that runs on graft. It is preparing to roll out a staff medical plan that will be the first in the country. It spends $1,500 a person on employee training, sending promising employees to courses in France, Malaysia and the Philippines.

It encourages women to work, still a rare thing in a country where they are often expected to stay covered and at home. Twenty per cent of its staff are women, and each of them gets a lift to and from work by company car to make sure they don’t get attacked or hassled by disapproving men.

Roshan gives back to the community, too, building playgrounds, funding a soup kitchen for homeless children and sponsoring events such as an annual kite festival.

“We’re more than a telephone company,” says Altaf Ladak, Roshan’s Tanzanian-born, British-raised, American-educated chief operating officer. “We’re helping to rebuild the country.”

Coming from another firm, that might seem like mere corporate puffery. But Roshan is something different. It’s half-owned by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, which makes a practice of investing in places where nervous money won’t go.

Afghanistan is certainly one of those places. With a war going on in the south, occasional suicide bombs in Kabul, few working roads, spotty electrical power and a capital without a sewage system, Afghanistan is no treat for investors. The Aga Khan went in regardless, determined to help the country get back on its feet after 30 years of civil war. The leader of the world’s famously charitable Ismaili Muslims, he built a five-star hotel in Kabul and helped start up Roshan (which means “light” or “hope”) in 2003.

The bet is paying off big.

After years of paltry phone service – there were only 20,000 telephone lines in the whole country before the mobile age – Afghans have gone mad for cheap mobile telephony.

Roshan’s first business plan predicted 12,000 subscribers in the first six months. It reached that in three days. Thousands of people waving application forms besieged its offices. Roshan now has 1.3 million subscribers and is adding another 60,000 every month.

Because the mail service barely works and almost no one has a credit card, customers buy phone cards at special shops and kiosks that are sprouting up around the country. Average cost for phone and activation card: $50. For those who can’t afford that, Roshan has 1,500 public call offices, little hole-in-the-wall outlets where those who can’t afford a phone of their own can make a call for 10 cents a minute.

Along with making money for Roshan, the cellphone craze has helped seed the hard soil of the Afghan economy. As in many developing countries, the cellphone is a great enabler, helping people jump over the limitations of an economically backward society and into the future. When a trader wants to know when his shipment of bananas from Peshawar is getting in, he calls the driver. When a carpet-seller needs a loan to expand his business, he calls his brother-in-law in Dubai. Roshan is even rolling out a system that will allow Afghans to use their cellphones as a virtual wallet, with money text-messaged from their accounts.

Interactions like that make the wheels of commerce turn and the process of economic development begin – something all the billions in aid that have flowed into Afghanistan have failed to do.

Roshan is almost single-handedly creating a new, entrepreneurial middle class in Afghanistan. With an average age of just 22, its people are forward-looking, ambitious and ready to learn.

Hamasa Zaki is typical. She grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan. At Roshan, she worked herself up from customer-care agent in a call centre to administrative assistant to sales officer. Now she runs the Roshan network of women phone agents and earns seven times the salary of her policeman father. Hamasa is all of 18.

People like her are Afghanistan’s future. Roshan has given them a place to thrive, and done its country an invaluable service.

mgee@globeandmail.com

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