Afghanistan, an impoverished and often dangerous country that has been ravaged by decades of fighting, is not the first place an entrepreneur might go to build a thriving company, especially one that relies on readily available infrastructure. But when Karim Khoja, CEO of Roshan Telecom, first arrived in the country a decade ago, the telecommunications veteran saw opportunity in a place where only the wealthy had access to telephones (everyone else had to cross the border into Pakistan to get phone access).
Today, Roshan is Afghanistan’s largest telecom provider, with 6 million customers. It’s also Afghanistan’s first B Corporation, gaining the do-gooder credential for its work on social and economic development. In the near future, Roshan will expand its services into other emerging markets–because if you can make it as a telecom provider in Afghanistan, you can probably make it anywhere.
“We started Roshan to create jobs and investments when no one else would create investments,” explains Khoja.
Roshan literally had to start from scratch, even supplying its own electricity. Security is always a problem, and things are especially bad right now as the presidential vote gets closer and the U.S. talks aboutpulling out all of its troops from the country. But Roshan has a system that has worked well thus far: outsource security to local communities, give them responsibility and ownership for critical telecom infrastructure, and guarantee that they get a revenue share as long as it stays up–and at the same time, install medical clinics and wells to generate goodwill.
The method seems to be working. Roshan is now the largest private employer in Afghanistan, has contributed $380 million in tax payments since 2003, and has invested almost $600 million in technology and infrastructure in the country. Every major city along with 220 villages in Afghanistan now have cell-phone coverage. Roshan has also launched a popular mobile money payments system (M-Paisa) and claims to have introduced the concept of customer care to Afghanistan, with a customer care center that handles over 200,000 calls weekly.
But since the company’s majority shareholder is the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, an organization that aims to stimulate sustainable economic and social development, Roshan’s social good mission comes first. Among the company’s projects: high-speed videoconferencing connections for rural hospitals to get telemedicine and training from well-regarded international hospitals; a series of rural e-learning centers; the construction of dozens of playgrounds; and over 100 water wells.
Now that Roshan has proven its ability to thrive in Afghanistan, it’s bringing telecom operations–and initiatives like telemedicine, e-learning, and mobile money–to Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and other countries. Even though Roshan knows how to deal with faltering infrastructure, there are always challenges in new markets. “There’s the challenge of different languages. The one thing about Africa that’s more different is that there’s a lot more tribalism. You have to be able to understand what drives those communities,” explains Altaf Ladak, COO of Roshan.
In Burundi, Roshan’s telecom service, known as Smart Mobile, is the second most popular in the capital city, with half a million subscribers (it’s only now expanding outside the capital). Roshan’s telecom services in Tanzania and Uganda recently soft-launched, and testing will continue over the next few months.
Khoja and Ladak are already thinking about the new social services they might offer. “In Afghanistan we created a center for women, a helpline for teachers to come and check their curriculum. In Africa, we can have an AIDS helpline or something like that,” says Ladak.
Khoja adds: “We have something that none of our competitors can compete with. We focus on development and universal access.”