What do you know about Afghanistan? It’s hard not to see the scenes of violence and the tragic stories that regularly make the news. Maybe you have also heard nostalgic tales told by travellers of the 60’s and 70’s when the breathtaking Afghan mountains were a popular backpacking destination and Kabul was known as the Paris of the East. Maybe you have read A Thousand Splendid Suns, and understand some of what the Afghan people have been going through in the last couple of decades, and maybe you caught a glimpse of their resourcefulness, pride and will to rebuild their battered country.
But there’s more to Afghanistan than this. What about the success stories? The thousands of ordinary Afghans who enjoy spending time with their families, starting new businesses, making new friends on Facebook? What about the companies who are working to bring services and goods that people in other countries take for granted?
To find out more I talked to Shainoor Khoja, who works at the Afghan mobile GSM company Roshan, about life and doing business in Afghanistan. She started by telling me Ali Agha’s story (name has been changed).
Ali Agha is an example of the Afghans who are leading their country into the future. Ali was staying in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan when he heard about Roshan. Smelling an opportunity, he went back to his country to talk to them. Roshan recognized an enterprising spirit and organized Ali with a microfinance loan to set up his own franchise. Ali’s phone dealership now turns over approximately USD40m per year.
Shainoor has been working with Roshan in Afghanistan for 4.5 years and has been continuously impressed by the resilience and resourcefulness of the Afghan people.
“Afghans are proud people and they want to be enabled, not given to”, she says.
This philosophy has driven Roshan’s business in Afghanistan and is probably the reason behind its success. Afghans have been quick to adopt mobile technology and Roshan has more than 3m subscribers, which makes it Afghanistan’s leading mobile operator. Roshan is backed by the Aga Khan Development Network’s ‘for-profit’ arm; the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) and two other foreign investors in a public-private sector partnership, but has tried hard to maintain its position as an Afghan company.
The name ‘Roshan’ was chosen by a panel of Afghans (it means “hope” and ‘light’ in Afghanistan’s most widely spoken languages, Dari and Pashto) And their strategy is to give local people the tools they need and let them get on with it. The Ali Agha dealership is one example of this. When they wanted to expand their store network, instead of building company owned outlets throughout Afghanistan, Roshan set up flagship stores in 7 provinces and let local entrepreneurs take it from there. They now have a network of over 200 Afghan-owned shops or kiosks throughout the country.
Doing business in Afghanistan still has its challenges. Some of these are related to the difficult terrain and lack of infrastructure. Some are related to a country recovering from conflict – safety is a concern, and the lack of inhabitable buildings means they have sometimes used refurbished shipping containers for low cost offices and housing. Roshan doesn’t pay baksheesh (bribes) and this has held up operations sometimes.
A careful and respectful approach to working with the local culture has clearly helped their business to succeed. Besides empowering local Afghan businesses wherever possible, Roshan respects cultural hierarchies – for example when entering a new region they first meet with the village shura explaining how their business will help the village and its people is a good way to gain acceptance. And they respect local attitudes and traditions towards men and women by using open plan working spaces, whilst educating employees about respecting all colleagues – men and women alike – as professionals.
As a last question, I asked Shainoor her opinion on what the rest of the world should know about Afghanistan.
“For every story of violence and disregard towards women, there is another of love and compassion, however it’s less obvious because Afghan society doesn’t permit overt expression”
Maybe it makes less interesting news, too. But next time you read the usual stories about Afghanistan Shainoor and a whole bunch of Afghans hope that you’ll remember that Afghanistan has another side, too.
Shainoor Khoja is Director of Corporate Affairs at Roshan
Uzbekistan: silk transporter to cotton exporter
How Tajikistan is coping with the financial crisis
Modern day silk road cities: Tashkent and Almaty have evolved into thriving modern cities – the heart of the new silk road
About the authorLucy