Mobile telephony has been one of the success stories of the past decade. The advent of pre-paid airtime has meant that network operators can secure revenue streams without doing credit checks, which can be costly or difficult to obtain. It also means they are not dependent on customers having conventional banking facilities, which is often the case in poor, underdeveloped countries.

In many instances, this technological leap is twinned with a shortage of fixed telephone lines, boosting demand for services. Across Latin America, Africa and Asia, experience has repeatedly borne out the fact that even the poorest customers will substitute other expenditure to pay for telecommunication services.

Advertisement

Swift uptake

So it is little surprise that the uptake of mobile telephone services in Afghanistan has been so rapid and enthusiastic. Within 18 months, telecoms company Roshan had network coverage across 25 cities and roaming agreements in eight countries; it expects to have 800,000 customers by year-end.

The case of Roshan proves that to succeed in Afghanistan, investors are advised to stick to normal business rules, despite the manifest underdevelopment of the economy.

“Do not treat the Afghans as if they are stupid,” advises Karim Khoja, CEO of Roshan. “A lot of companies make this mistake. They dump inferior goods on the market, sell them and then run. Afghans may not be educated in a formal sense but they are very sophisticated traders and negotiators. They quickly work you out.”

Roshan undertook extensive research before coming to market. Thirty different focus groups were questioned for their views on branding and service offering, and it was out of this process that the name Roshan emerged – meaning light, hope and a new beginning. The name reflects the sentiment that Afghanistan is in the midst of its best chance yet of a peaceful and prosperous future.

“We listen to the customers,” says Mr Khoja, who has installed networks in different parts of the world. This includes decisions on where to locate base stations and on its marketing.

Careful marketing

In a country devoid of advertising, the company’s marketing message has had to be carefully thought-out and sensitive. In certain areas, women are not featured in ads; elsewhere, the tone and style have had to be tweaked; and, given the country’s different ethnic groups, multiple-language versions were necessary.

Roshan also has a flagship retail outlet in Kabul, selling handset and SIM card starter-packs. A state-of-the-art store, complete with modern fittings and the latest retail design devices, it would sit comfortably on any high street in the industrialised world. It is aimed at local Afghans, not foreigners, says Mr Khoja. Upstairs is an internet café furnished with the latest, fastest PC terminals and connections; it is also aimed exclusively at Afghans. The objective is to let locals know that Roshan is a modern, cutting-edge company and that it takes its customers seriously. Just as important, it sets a standard for the company’s numerous franchised agents for its SIM cards and airtime vouchers.

Roshan employs 500 staff members, of which almost 30% are women. There are 50 expatriates and this number will gradually be wound down as the internal management capacity is developed. Already, three members of the executive team are Afghan, and promotion and development of internal staff is rapid. One staff member started as a driver, progressed into customer care and is now working in the finance department.

Language classes

The internal language of the company is English, but meetings and company-wide memos are translated. “In Afghanistan, English is seen as progressive and international. We offer language classes; even the cleaners want to learn English. It all helps with staff retention,” says Mr Khoja.

This is one of the reasons that the company has a low staff turnover. Many employees recognise the long-term prospects of Roshan; though foreign aid agencies in the country pay better, they will not be employing forever, says Mr Khoja.

Roshan has had mixed success attracting returning Afghans to the company. Although they tend to be well educated, many of them have grown accustomed to a safer, more predictable quality of life, and may struggle to reintegrate into the Kabul lifestyle. Despite the sometimes harsh realities of living in Afghanistan, Roshan benefits from the country’s international profile as an exciting, challenging and dynamic operating environment, and the company receives numerous applications from the world’s leading universities for acceptance on to its internship programme. It’s a novel way to attract Ivy League graduates to Afghanistan and utilise their skills at an affordable cost, says Mr Khoja.

From the outset, Roshan has strictly enforced a zero-tolerance approach to corruption and Mr Khoja is convinced that its approach will set a standard that becomes accepted as the norm. It has not been without frustrations: one promising employee was fired after taking a bribe.

Can-do attitude

Roshan’s CEO oozes an entrepreneurial, can-do attitude – a trait, he says, that is needed to crack the Afghan market. To speed up implementation and build capacity, he built an office wing out of disused shipping containers, a novel modular construction that bears little resemblance to its constituent parts. He admits now that it is imperfect but would do the same again given the slow pace of conventional construction and the urgent need at the time to get the business up and running. In a similar vein, all the company’s facilities “multi-task” by housing base stations, generators and where needed, international gateways – all of which can be better secured at a single site. It’s a simple cost-saving ploy.

Mr Khoja outlines the company’s corporate social responsibilities, highlighting the different ways in which Roshan provides income opportunities to the country’s many unemployed as well as recently demobilised fighters. Sales of airtime scratch-cards can earn sellers up to $100 per month; promotional giveaways, such as branded soccer balls, are manufactured by handicapped Afghans.

Is this not just a clever ploy to win more business? Mr Khoja insists there is a broader purpose, to strengthen and build a fragile country. And while he would like the tax system to be simplified, he does not begrudge the 12% of his revenues that go to government as tax.