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KABUL, AFGHANISTAN: Kareem Khoja, the CEO of Rowshan company gives us a tour to their first Rowhan Store, called Shop 1, in Kabul. (Kiana Hayeri)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN: Kareem Khoja, the CEO of Rowshan company gives us a tour to their first Rowhan Store, called Shop 1, in Kabul. (Kiana Hayeri)

The one thing that works in Afghanistan: mobile Add to ...

One Friday last October, a man drove his Toyota Corolla up to Green Village, a residential complex on the eastern outskirts of Kabul. At dusk, he detonated a car bomb in the neighbourhood that many Western expatriates call home. Gunfire between security forces and attackers—probably members of the Taliban or a splinter group—followed the blast. The intended target was a two-car foreign convoy, but instead the explosion killed at least two civilians, as well as injuring others.

When I visit the area a week after the attack, the nearby compound of telecom operator Roshan is still in disarray. Doors are blown off hinges, windows shattered. A guard on patrol is said to have found remnants of an arm on a roof—presumably belonging to one of the suicide attackers. Ceilings have caved in, and cracks are growing on walls.

Tragic as the incident was, Roshan and its Canadian chief executive, Karim Khoja, brushed it off. The firm has had plenty of experience with this sort of episode in the past decade; its persistence and success are a testament to the belief that it is possible to do business in Afghanistan. Although Roshan and Khoja are not out of the Taliban’s reach, they can counter the extremists with a force that’s even stronger than terrorism.

As the Western military presence in Afghanistan comes to an end, mobile technology bids to be the greatest legacy of the West’s intervention in the country. Old men remember travelling for days across bad roads to reach the nearest telephone in neighbouring Pakistan. Now, women with cellphones call radio shows to voice their opinions about the next election—in a country where not only cellphones but also elections, talk shows and women speaking out are all novelties.

“When Roshan came, it was a new way of being,” says Naseem Akbar, who runs Harakat, an anti-corruption organization. “It was a new way of feeling. You can say that it revolutionized people’s lives.”

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Karim Khoja is short and solid, a congenitally convivial man with a generous laugh; his staff call him “KK.” His white dress shirt is embroidered with that monogram; on his smallest finger is a Harvard Business School class ring. When a photographer asks him to lose his perma-grin and be serious, Khoja looks baffled.

For Khoja, it’s been both a long and a short route to this challenging and unusual job.

The long way begins in Pretoria, South Africa, where Khoja was born into a tight-knit Ismaili Muslim community 55 years ago. Under the apartheid regime, the family’s wealth—built up running a modest chain of grocers and butchers—was expropriated. So began Khoja’s hardscrabble childhood. As a seven-year-old, he persuaded stores to give him kitchen supplies on consignment so he could sell them on the street.

The racism the family felt in South Africa was pervasive, even taking the form of park benches designated “Net Blankes”: Whites Only. In England, where the family moved when Khoja was 9, racism was more casual. In the sloppy branding of the rugby field, Khoja was routinely called a “Paki” (his family in fact comes from Gujarat in northwest India).

In 1985, Khoja, having earned degrees at the University of London (biochemistry) and Imperial College (management science), immigrated with his new wife, Shainoor, to Vancouver. Their declared wealth came to $89. Still, the year of Expo was soon upon them, and the couple felt like “Canada had thrown this six-month party to welcome us,” Khoja says.

He soon found work with Mobile Data International, selling mobile data systems. He moved on to a string of successful stints in the telecom industries of emerging markets: at ERA GSM in Poland, MobiLink in Pakistan and T-Hrvatski Telekom, Croatia’s largest telecom company. Khoja also found time to earn an executive degree from Harvard’s business school. But he always returned to Vancouver, once to run a radio frequency identification company, eXI Wireless, taking the company from $800,000 to $12 million in revenue in three years (all currency in U.S. dollars).

“People make fun of me for being so proud to be a Canadian,” Khoja says. “You have to understand, I was born in South Africa, where I was treated like a second-class citizen. I grew up in England, where even though I had a passport, I never felt like an equal. And then I landed in a country where I felt like I belonged. You can see I get very moved.” Through the grainy Skype image, I can see his eyes have begun to water. (For our first interview, he is in Dubai, where he has an office and where his wife lives; I am in Kabul.)

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