Shireen Rahmani knows firsthand that operating a 21st century corporation in a conservative Muslim society presents unique challenges. She is the director of human resources at Roshan, Afghanistan’s largest telecommunications provider. When she heard late one evening that her colleague’s brother had been killed by the Taliban, she knew it was her responsibility to visit her bereaved co-worker, who was living alone in Kabul.
“The minute I walked in, [he] was totally shocked to see a woman out at that time of the night,” Rahmani says. In Afghanistan, families are often reluctant to even allow women in business, much less a position that requires traveling across the capital city alone at night — so much so that Roshan’s leaders have met with parents to assure them of their daughters’ safety while at work. At Roshan, women make up 20 percent of the staff and 17 percent of the senior management team in a country where the International Labour Organization found that as of 2014 only 16 percent of the workforce was female.
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Rahmani and her workplace are leading by example to challenge traditional notions about women in business in the country. In fact, Rahmani, who started as an office assistant, is a candidate to become Roshan’s next CEO.
A 2016 Best for Community honoree, Roshan’s human capital investments and community investments have helped it succeed in a country that has been plagued by armed conflict for nearly 40 years. Founded by the Aga Khan Development Network in 2003 to spark development in one of the world’s poorest countries, Roshan has 6.5 million cellphone subscribers and is the largest private employer in Afghanistan with 1,000 workers, 97 percent of whom are Afghan. Roshan has invested $700 million in infrastructure, including its own networks, and millions of dollars in community investment projects — building wells in villages, setting up computer learning centers, and providing technology for a wide array of initiatives that contribute to the development of the country. Economists estimate that the company’s activities have added about 30,000 jobs to the nation’s economy.
And in everything it does, Roshan places a special focus on creating opportunities for women in business.
For Roshan’s current CEO, the bubbly Canadian Karim Khoja, Roshan’s community investments are not charity. Engaging in philanthropy in Afghanistan, he says, would be like “trying to drink out of a fire hose with the tap turned on fully, because the need is so great that you would just drown.” Long-term sustainability is key to everything Roshan does. “When we fund a project … we must see that within a period of time that project delivers results and can be sustainable,” Khoja says.
One example is a telemedicine project that connects doctors from remote areas to specialists at the French Medical Institute for Children in Kabul and the Aga Khan University Hospital in Pakistan. Through high-speed video connection, poor patients from rural areas are diagnosed by experts. The Roshan-provided technology also enables Afghan doctors at the institute to be guided through complicated procedures that they otherwise would not have the expertise to handle.
Recently, the telemedicine system allowed doctors in Afghanistan to operate on a young girl with a brain tumor, a procedure that would normally be very risky in a remote hospital.
“That’s a young baby’s life that’s saved. Am I proud of that? Absolutely, I should be proud of that,” Khoja says, beaming. Roshan’s facilities also made possible the first successful separation of conjoined twins in Afghanistan.
For a few years, Roshan provided the technology to the children’s institute free of charge. Today, the facility pays a subsidized fee for the service because the use of telemedicine has brought the institute additional revenue.
Community Investments: The Business Case for Community Improvement
Roshan’s investment in projects that benefit women has also provided a benefit to the business. “When we focused on women and girl children … the number of women subscribers went from 8 to 18 percent — it more than doubled,” Khoja says. Women also remain Roshan customers much longer than men.
Some years ago, Roshan created a program that trained women to fix secondhand mobile phones. The training had a snowball effect: These women started their own phone-repair businesses and have since been able to earn a living. They also began training other women in business. The expanding supply of used mobile phones has helped grow Roshan’s business. “If the phones are working, people are going to use them more,” Khoja says.
Before the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan had no functioning telephone lines. Afghans had to travel to neighboring countries just to make phone calls. When Roshan and other telecoms entered the country in 2003, the situation dramatically changed — now 23 million people in Afghanistan have cellphones out of the country’s total population of about 32 million.
During national elections in 2009, insurgents orchestrated an attack on Roshan, bombing 18 cell towers worth $14 million after the company refused to pay the Taliban extortion money. “In my world, a bad day isn’t a train delay on the way to work or a line in the coffee shop. It’s a rush-hour terrorist attack that attempts to thwart the progress we are making in Afghanistan every day,” Rahmani wrote in a post for leanin.org.
Looking Forward: How to Continue Community Service Amidst Conflict
But the growth in customers and revenue that Roshan experienced in its first decade has been falling off more recently. “We’re at that point, at the precipice right now, where the mobile industry is actually starting to deteriorate,” Khoja says. Civilian casualties from attacks by Taliban insurgents have skyrocketed in the past two years since the withdrawal of NATO troops and private contractors. With the security situation growing dire, thousands have fled the country, including scores of young people. Although Roshan’s owners don’t share figures, it’s clear the company’s revenue among mobile phone users has suffered.
“We don’t see revenue growing. We see this exodus of huge wealth in terms of migration, of people taking their money with them,” Khoja says.
Recently, the Afghan government decided to increase taxes on the mobile industry, including mobile phones, and not for the first time. “No business can be sustained unless it’s given fuel to be sustainable,” Khoja says. “We’ve shown that you can succeed.” Taxation, he says, keeps being increased on the successful industries instead of the tax base being widened to other industries that have so far avoided taxation. “Unless there’s a level playing field and a distribution of a wider tax net, then the successful industries will die.”
Still, Roshan is in it for the long haul. “When you know you are not going to leave, no matter what the problems, you are going to have to solve them,” Khoja says. “That makes a huge difference.”
A decade ago, to protect its own property such as cell towers, the company stopped using foreign security companies and gave the responsibility of securing telephone masts and e-learning centers to community elders, who are invested in protecting the assets. If the Taliban come to a village, the community members will try to prevent destruction of the cell towers, which have improved their lives. The longer the sites are secured and working, the bigger the community investment bonus granted by Roshan. The company also saves money because of a reduction in security bills and sites attacked, meaning the uptime for customers has gone up.
Khoja says Roshan’s focus on community investment is but one element in the success of the company, which respects its customers and stakeholders and delivers innovative products and services. For example, the creation of Roshan’s mobile banking unit in 2008 has made transactions easier for average Afghans.
“Roshan is the best company,” says Feroz Hekmati, a mobile vendor and Roshan subscriber. “They have the best internet and cheapest rates. I don’t know about any other companies that do so much for Afghanistan.”
This article originally appeared as “Groundbreaking Telecom Empowers Communities” in the Fall 2016 issue of B Magazine.
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