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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

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.

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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).

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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.)

"I dream about going back one day. Going cycling in Stanley Park, walking to a Canucks game. Just having a normal life. That would be amazing."

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The short version of how Khoja went to Kabul is this: The Aga Khan asked him to.

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In the spring of 2002, Khoja was in Vancouver when the office of the head of the Ismaili faith called to ask if he would take a sabbatical from running T-Hrvatski Telekom's mobile arm to advise Afghanistan's fledgling telecom ministry. It would take only three months, the voice on the other end of the line said, and he would be home by the end of the summer.

Khoja accepted. But while he was in Kabul doing the advisory work, the telecom ministry opened bidding for a national GSM licence. Khoja, having helped to start up mobile networks from scratch in Pakistan, Poland and Croatia, knew that he had to at least apply.

Roshan, as the nascent firm was called—it means "light" in Dari and Pashto—beat out five other contenders, and by the summer of 2003, Khoja had been made CEO of Roshan by a consortium led by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development. (Today the fund owns 51%, while an arm of British telecom giant Cable & Wireless holds 36.7% and TeliaSonera, a leading Scandinavian mobile network operator, has 12.3%.)

It would not be the first mobile player in the country. Afghan Wireless Communication Co., which had started up with a 20% government stake a year earlier, had 30,000 subscribers—in a country that then had 28 million people.

In July, 2003, when Roshan opened for business, no one knew what the market demand would be. Zabin Jadavji, Roshan's first human resources director, figured "a few expats, maybe one or two warlords with money to spend" would take interest in a new cellphone company. Roshan was to charge $100 per SIM card, which was a fraction of the Afghan Wireless price, but still prohibitively expensive in a country that then had a per capita GDP of $198. (Today a SIM costs $1, and per capita GDP is approaching $700.)

On opening day, Jadavji peered out the window and saw hundreds of people waiting. They had saved up, pooled money and queued for hours. The police were called to manage the swelling crowd. Roshan sold 20,000 SIM cards that day.

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I asked Jadavji whether she had any doubts about Roshan's success. After a considered pause, the Calgary native answered, sounding surprised by her own admission, "I don't think that thought ever even came up."

The latter half of 2003 went by in a blur. The original eight staff recruits, half of whom had previously worked with Khoja, had logged their first successful phone call in June. By December, Roshan had 70,000 subscribers, well above the projected 50,000.

In this way, Khoja's three months became 11 years—and counting.

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In the early days of the American-led invasion, Afghans were perceived as being preoccupied with the simple concerns of shelter and food, says Hedvig Christine Alexander, who lived in Kabul from 2002 to 2009 and now runs a Toronto-based social enterprise for artisans. "Twelve years ago, no one could foresee that people with limited income would choose to spend their money on phones. It may not seem like such a risky investment now, but it certainly was at the time."

What Khoja saw was a country brimful of the same innate human desire that governs us all: the desire to connect.

During holidays like Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, or Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Roshan now knows to expect spikes in revenue, Khoja says. But did I know, he asks, that another boost comes during poppy harvest? "The farmers get money to spend, and what do they do? They buy minutes," he says, adding that over 60% of Roshan's revenue comes from the southern provinces, where illegal opium cultivation is common. (When I ask Communications Minister Amirzai Sangin if this is true, his response is: "Ha ha ha! This is not what they told me!")

Allowing families to connect is no small virtue, but there's also a nation-building aspect to what Roshan does. M-Paisa, Roshan's mobile banking program, transmits salaries to 1,400 members of the Afghan National Police stationed in provinces like Helmand that still do not have modern banking. The service is provided to less than 1% of the total police force, but those 1,400 men are stationed in remote places where the presence of police is most important.

Until a few years ago, salaries rarely arrived in officers' bank accounts intact and on time. It was hard to know who to blame: the financial officer at the Ministry of Interior, the working stiff at the local police branch, or even your own comandan sahib.

With M-Paisa, officers get a text each month telling them that money has been deposited to their accounts. Officers who can't read get a phone call instead. This is the kind of transparency and reliability that helps a country build loyalty on the front line.

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In the beginning, there was a certain romance to doing business in the wild west of Afghanistan. Engineers working for Roshan set out with inaccurate maps and government statistics, and stumbled across places that cartographers didn't even know existed—like Sharan, a town of 50,000 some 200 kilometres south of Kabul that they discovered in 2004.

But the day-to-day of running a business in Afghanistan means less romance and more reckoning with the daunting realities of terrorism and bureaucracy.

Today, 10 of Roshan's staff work in the government relations department, completing the towering paperwork that has come to define Afghanistan. Wouldn't it be easier just to pay a bribe and bypass this bureaucracy? It would be, yes, Khoja answers. But he is unwavering in his stance against corruption, a position many Afghans consider idiosyncratic.

How entrenched is the culture of graft? A 2013 Transparency International report ranked Afghanistan in a three-way tie, with North Korea and Somalia, as the most corrupt country in the world. Faith in Afghan government institutions is so low that when the five leading telecom companies drafted a code of conduct, one clause was a simple pledge to pay taxes. Roshan's zero-tolerance policy on corruption means one or two people are fired every year for accepting bribes.

Erecting base stations in the early days posed a particular challenge. In some parts of the country, roads had to be built and areas demined. Getting shipments of tower parts through customs meant negotiating with flummoxed officials who didn't yet know how much tax to charge.

And by 2006, the Taliban had figured out that the triangulation of towers could reveal their whereabouts when they made calls. Threats followed: If operators did not shut down service, tower stations would be destroyed. Criminals after easy money also adopted this method. In the ensuing years, some 300 towers among five companies—MTN, Etisalat, Afghan Telecom and AWCC, as well as Roshan—were destroyed or damaged.

Yet by 2009, the attacks stopped: Public discontent with service disruptions overwhelmed religious or tribal affiliations.

Today, Roshan's 1,000 towers stand from the Khyber Pass in the west to Ishkashim to the north, into the Wakhan Corridor, and along the Uzbek, Turkmen and Iranian borders, and Highway 1, Afghanistan's grand trunk highway, which circles back down to Kandahar, before closing the loop in Kabul.

Former CFO Tony Dambriunas says revenues have been in the $300-million to $350-million range in recent years. After the initial surge of customer sign-ups, business has flattened. None of the providers is growing, now that there are 21 million cellphones in a country of 30 million people. But the company remains profitable. "It took many years, but we proved that you could do business in Afghanistan," says Khoja.

Roshan is not only the largest mobile company in Afghanistan; it's also the country's largest taxpayer ($400 million to date), investor ($600 million to date) and employer (1,100 people directly and an estimated 30,000 indirectly). With scant means of supporting itself, Kabul desperately needs the $200 million in annual taxes paid by the mobile industry, which accounts for 10% of all tax revenue. Worth an estimated $3 billion to $5 billion, telecoms are a rare thing: a sector that flourished during NATO's intervention, but will survive the departure of the foreigners and their rush of capital. The same cannot be said about sectors that grew out of military contracts—construction, logistics, security—which do not have a strong indigenous customer base. Nor will many of the aid projects in Afghanistan have such an enduring presence.

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The attacks on towers may have stopped, but security concerns continue to be top-of-mind for Roshan.

When the company started operations 11 years ago, its living quarters occupied part of a former Soviet psychiatric hospital, with an unarmed porter standing watch. Over the past decade, security restrictions have tightened. Today, all foreign staff live at the heavily fortified Roshan Village, adjacent to the Green Village complex.

On my first visit there, I had trouble locating the gate. For security reasons, few foreigner-frequented businesses bear signs, which can make navigating the city seem like a quest of mythological duration. In search of Roshan Village, I cruised up and down the highway, until a nondescript gate slid open, revealing a tableau of tin roofs, razor wires and barriers.

Khoja travels with two "occasionally armed" bodyguards in an armoured vehicle. About 5% of Roshan's operating budget goes to security, which includes a complement of 500 full-time guards, with an additional 2,500 to 3,000 on call.

Roshan is working out of several buildings, one of which used to be the Libyan embassy. The company HQ is built out of stacked shipping containers. The gleaming network operating centre, meanwhile, was built from scratch. A sputtering public power supply is buttressed by three independent sources of power—fuel tank, battery and generator.

Khoja is only too happy to provide an exhaustive tour of the operating centre—he wants me to "appreciate the details." Khoja insists on international standards. At the faintest hint of a failing among his staff, he takes on a reproachful tone. He is both demanding and indefatigable.

In his armoured car, we head out to Roshan's first storefront. In a country where gasoline is still sold in jerry cans at roadside stalls, and sedans share the street with donkeys and goats, the Roshan store, with its tablet computers and the latest smartphones, is a revelation. The "No Entry with Weapon" sign harkens back to the years when guards politely reminded customers to surrender their guns and grenades before entering the store. Back then, Khoja had a nightly ritual of circulating in a beat-up minivan, moving around the hundreds of thousands of dollars Roshan had spread over seven safes across Kabul to keep the money flow obscured from thieves and terrorists. It got to a point where Dambriunas and Khoja could take one look at a safe and calculate how many bills it could hold.

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One afternoon, we are sitting in Khoja's office and talking about the future, as people do here obsessively. What will happen after the foreigners leave? "We've had a decade of progress," Khoja says, citing the 2.6 million girls in schools, and the way wedding halls and football leagues have sprung up. Is he ever scared? "Of course I'm scared. But I am also optimistic. I have to be. We will continue to invest, irrespective of what the country becomes. I'm scared, yes, but this is beyond me." His stentorian voice crescendoes into a moving speech about being here, about believing, about not quitting.

The death of two Canadian auditors in a restaurant bombing in January is a reminder, if any is needed, that the future is uncertain in Afghanistan as NATO forces withdraw from the country, a process that will be completed at the end of this year. Apart from the unstable security and political situations, Afghanistan faces a decrease in aid and military spending. The prospect of foreign investment will grow ever-slimmer as everyone, businesses and NGOs alike, holds their breath to see what will happen to Afghanistan after NATO leaves. Meanwhile, unemployment is rising. "Investors are scared away by the security situation," Minister Sangin says. "We need continued support from the donor community to keep the army and the police mobilized until Afghanistan can stand on its own.

"The main question is: Is the money coming or not? If it is coming, then the risk is not there. If it is not coming, then internal chaos, military coup, anything can happen."

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