INTERVIEW by LAUREN SHUFFLETON | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of SHAINOOR KHOJA
So often it is big corporations that are the enemy when it comes to solving problems for our communities. The telecommunications company Roshan, however, has demonstrated through its work in Afghanistan that for-profit businesses can make massive improvements in everything from the country’s technological infrastructure to a rurally-based woman’s daily life. The leading cellular service provider in Afghanistan, Roshan provides thousands of jobs to Afghan citizens and reinvests its profits back into the country, investing hundreds of millions of dollars since 2003. I chatted with Shainoor Khoja, who is the managing director of Roshan’s non-profit, community-focused component. Thanks in part to her leadership, Roshan has served millions of meals to displaced populations in Afghanistan; provided scholarships and job training to thousands of citizens; constructed schools, wells, and playgrounds; built up the healthcare system; and made mobile phones, laptops, e-banking, and e-learning available to as many people as possible.
Could you start by talking about how your husband, Karim Khoja—founder and CEO of Roshan—started this business in Afghanistan?
Mr. Khoja has been working for over 25 years in telecoms around the world. He is also a follower of His Highness the Aga Khan, who set up an international agency called the Aga Khan Development Network—that’s a non-religious, non-denominational organization that basically works to fight poverty in 33 of the world’s worst areas. AKFED, one of His Highness’ organizations, asked Mr. Khoja to come and help in Afghanistan as the Taliban was falling and they were committed 75 million dollars to the reconstruction process.
Karim went out to help President Karzai’s government and the Minister of Communications at the time to understand what telecommunications was and how to put out a tender. Having done that process, he realized the impact telecommunications could have. He set himself aside from the project so that he could then apply for the Telecoms License for the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, which invests in for-profit endeavors in fragile infrastructures with the purpose of building jobs, capacity, profits, and tax revenue, therefore making a country self-sufficient.
So how did you come on board into the position you have now?
When he first started out, you have to remember, Afghanistan had been at war for over twenty-three years, and there was very little infrastructure—very few hospitals, doctors, nurses. The education system had been interrupted, so there were no young people qualified to do the jobs he needed in the early stages and he had to recruit from overseas. We had issues when people came because they’d trip and twist their ankle or break their elbow and we would have to airlift them out of the country because there was no healthcare available.
My personal background is in healthcare, and I have set up various clinics in various parts of the world, so he asked me if I would come and set up a clinic, which I did in the summer months while the kids were on vacation, and then never left. Eight years on, I’m still there!
So I did the clinic and that began to provide medical care for expatriates and our local employees. Then gradually I got drawn into the issues of women and the local community and was asked to set up the corporate Social Responsibility Department, which now basically deals with women, children, and communities, using technology to improve their quality of life.
I know that you’ve done a lot of different work through this position. Could you tell me about one thing they you’ve been working on currently or recently that you’re most excited about right now?
Oh, there’s lots that we’re very excited about! The biggest thing in the early days was voice — the ability for people to speak was incredible. But what has happened over the last eight years is that we have realized that this little gadget, a mobile phone, can suddenly be your doctor, your teacher, your bank. And it’s those applications that we’ve deployed that are so very exciting.
I think the biggest thing is the impact of mobile banking; the ability to bank a two- or three-dollar individual who is rurally-based is incredible because it allows them access to all the banking products and services that we have. It also eliminates corruption, which helps build the basis for a civil society.
So to give you a specific example of that… in a very, very dangerous area of Afghanistan we started paying police officers using the mobile phone. The first month, these 250 police officers complained that they didn’t get their money, and we realized they couldn’t read, and so couldn’t read the text that told them they’d been paid. We put in a voice system that informed them they had been paid and the subsequent month they all phoned to thank us for a 30% pay raise; before, the cash went to the commander and then the lieutenant and whoever took their cut, and the person at the bottom, the poor police officer, got $50 or $60 of pay that was $150.
All of a sudden they realized what they were getting paid and they valued that, and so now they aren’t going AWOL, they aren’t switching sides, they’re doing their jobs and are happy to do them. Paying salaries using the mobile phone has been phenomenal because it’s secure, safe, transparent, and will provide in the long run the basis for a tax at a source-based system that would make the country self-sufficient.
It seems like Roshan picks up new projects as it goes… like you identify a problem and then start working on that. How do you identify problems? What steps do you take to figure out what to do?
Very early on when the strategy was set, we knew there were so many problems in Afghanistan that we couldn’t do everything. We said we’d look at problems that the community was facing and then evaluate which problems we could tackle with our expertise: business expertise and tech expertise.
For instance, 97% of the population is unbanked, and there’s only seventeen banks and 38-40 ATMs. In a country where 75% of the population is rurally-based and makes less than $2 a day, you can quickly see that the mobile phone and your expertise in technology can help get those people banked and leading better lives. So that’s really how we identify that.
Education is a problem, especially printing books, as textbooks are 19th century here. The population is 50% under the age of 20 years old, so they’re into the notebook era. That means we need to be progressive and think about how to leapfrog old methodologies, so e-learning came out of this thinking.
Ultimately I don’t think that we’re brilliant people, and it’s not that we have tons of money to waste, but the company’s leadership is very open to innovation and if you can come up with a solid idea, they are quite happy to let you have a go.
Have you felt like there have been any obstacles because you and Mr. Khoja are not Afghanis?
Of course we’re different, and we’re thought of as foreign generally. However, right from the beginning, Roshan as a company has always gone to the people. It’s the people’s company; the people named it, and it’s been a partnership with the people in terms of our dealers, our sales agents, and the jobs that we’ve created. So we’ve very much identified ourselves with the people, for the people.
I think that’s helped us more than other companies who have come in and sort of held on to their external identities. We have not. We have lived like the Afghans live, so we don’t drive around in 4-by-4’s, we drive the same cars as our local Afghan people drive. But there are elements of the country that are not fond of us and don’t see our wins as wins, and so we have to be conscious of that.
Roshan has challenged some basic business norms in Afghanistan by not negotiating with kidnappers, having zero tolerance for corruption, and hiring women. These all seem like good things to me, but I’m wondering if there’s a line between what you’re willing to change about Afghanistan and what you don’t want to intrude upon.
Yeah. That’s a good question. We are all for women’s engagement and building women’s capacity and helping the community. We are not here to challenge religious beliefs, or cultural beliefs that are strong. We will not challenge or support issues around the proliferation of AIDS, we will not get involved in anything that is religiously inflammatory, we won’t take sides on different factions of the Muslim faith, the international community, or the local community. We tend to focus much more on areas where we can build capacity and build the country, and build the intellect within so that they themselves so that they themselves can affect the changes that they see as appropriate.
Do you think the model Roshan has embodied, this non-profit and for-profit combination, is viable for other businesses? Do you think this is a model that should be replicated?
Well, I think that the Roshan model is exemplary of the way business should be done. Let me explain why: Roshan has earned world-renowned status because it is operating profitably and so impactfully in a very difficult country. But it’s happening in other places too, so it’s really the principles and premise with which you do your business. Of course, commercially the investment has to be profitable in order for you to be there, otherwise there’s no basis for you to be there. The rest of it is how you do the business, and that’s where it’s really critical.
That’s where you build capacity, where you use local shopkeepers and dealers, where you train people to do basic jobs; it’s a lot of investment beyond dollar investment, in terms of time, teaching, training, patience, all those things. But we believe that all those things lead to a stronger and better business.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
I think the Daily BR!NKers can do a lot to help. The biggest thing is to spread the word. There are a lot of myths about Afghanistan that are not entirely correct, so share this story, share the positive impacts, and engage in discussion around that in the hope that you can influence the way international aid is dispensed. Hopefully the aid that comes through taxpayers like yourselves and your parents will actually be a capacity-building and enabling aid and not a dependency aid. I think that’s what we’d ask; the more people that know about the way things are happening and how they can happen, the more it can change mindsets. That’s what this is about.