Khoja's calling

Improvisation and diplomacy have become key factors behind Roshan's expansion since the launch of the company, especially as it is non-Afghan and operating in a country where little can happen without a little baksheesh.

  • E-Mail
By  Tawanda Chihota Published  March 30, 2005

|~||~||~|Karim Khoja has become a specialist in nurturing new ventures in the mobile industry, including early cellular networks in Poland, Croatia and Pakistan. But the Canadian millionaire almost got more than he bargained for after leaving his plush pads in Dubai and London and launching Afghanistan's second mobile operator, Roshan, in July 2003. Improvisation and diplomacy have become key factors behind Roshan's expansion since the launch of the company, especially as it is non-Afghan and operating in a country where little can happen without a little baksheesh. Khoja has already spent some US$120 million on extending the service to 25 of the war-torn country's main towns and cities. But Khoja's engineers and contractors have also had to bear in mind whose toes they are treading on when putting the company's infrastructure in place. “We have to work very closely with local communities,” says Khoja. “Before we go into a village, one of our senior executives goes ahead and meets the local governor or warlord, drinks chai and smokes sheesha and then tells him our plans. We don't give bribes - we set expectations,” he adds. One of Khoja's main arguments in these situations is that Roshan is not only profit-orientated but also geared towards stimulating local economies that are brought within reach of its network. He points out that the service has already been extended to some isolated mountain areas despite the low returns they are likely to offer, and that Roshan is majority owned by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) - a non-governmental organisation that has been heavily involved in Afghanistan's reconstruction since 1996. Many of Roshan's employees, including Khoja, are also Ismailis - a small Islamic sect, which the Aga Khan leads. “We are trying to build a middle class in Afghanistan,” says Khoja. “Not from the standpoint of any one ethnic group, but from a country perspective,” he adds. The often-unorthodox nature of doing business in Afghanistan has also led Roshan to test out some interesting, dual-purpose schemes to expand its own business and give more people access to its network. One, which started in August 2004, allows former mujahideen to trade in their Kalashnikovs for rights to operate ‘public call offices’ (PCOs) - payphone-type contraptions which they can use to re-sell calls back in their home-towns and villages. The ex-combatants are offered training and, according to Khoja, can use the phones to earn up to US$120 per month. Roshan, in turn, gets incremental cash from people who are typically unable to afford the one-off cost of a phone and subscription. “The offer's been very well received,” says Khoja. “We've got about 110 PCOs in service right now and expect to go to 1,000 by the end of the year. We probably would have been at 500 or 1,000 by now but we weren't ready with the products and had to delay them,” he adds. Schemes such as these, Khoja says, are necessary for the company because its long-term fortunes will be closely tied in with those of Afghanistan itself. Despite having launched later than the country's other commercial mobile network, Afghan Wireless Communication, Khoja says that Roshan is now serving 330,000 of Afghanistan's estimated 600,000 mobile users and expects one million Afghans to have mobiles by the end of the year. The firm is also now estimated to be responsible for 6% of the government's tax receipts and remains one of the country's largest foreign investors. Khoja therefore has some ambitious plans up his sleeve to tap into any continuing growth in Afghanistan's economy. For one, he sees an opportunity to use mobile communications to help revitalise Afghanistan's strategic role in trade in Central Asia. Roshan has concentrated its base stations in hubs where commercial activity has traditionally clustered. It has also bought additional licences in neighbouring countries, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and designed the network to provide coverage along major trading routes leading to their borders. Eventually, Khoja hopes traders and shopkeepers will start using their phones to manage their supply chains and, through mobile payment technology, offer an alternative means for customers to purchase products when ATMs and banks are short on the ground. ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code