Leading light

Comprehensive coverage and a focus on service has been instrumental in making Roshan Afghanistan’s leading mobile operator.

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By  Roger Field Published  October 5, 2008

Comprehensive coverage and a focus on service has been instrumental in making Roshan Afghanistan’s leading mobile operator.

Karim Khoja feels relaxed in most environments, which is fortunate given that he has spent much of the past four years overseeing the rollout of Afghanistan’s most comprehensive mobile network – a job that has demanded a measure of nerve beyond that required by most telecom executives.

But for Khoja the rewards have been well worth the risks, both on a business and philanthropic level. Indeed, Roshan, which is 51%-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 – has achieved much since it started operations as the country’s third operator back in 2003.

We will continue to expand coverage, and by the end of next year we will be about 65% population, then within two or three years we will be pretty much there. Our goal should be about 90% of the population covered in the next two or three years.

After just four years, Roshan commands a 40% share of Afghanistan’s mobile market, making it the country’s dominant operator. Roshan has also managed to maintain its strong market share lead despite growing competition from its three mobile competitors: Afghan Wireless Communications Company, which the first entrant into the market; Areeba, which is a division of South Africa’s MTN; and Etisalat, which gained a license to operate in the country in 2006.

For Khoja, Roshan’s status as Afghanistan’s leading player is largely down to the company’s extensive network. Indeed, while the other players have concentrated on the country’s main cities, Roshan decided to roll out operations in smaller towns, villages and even rural areas, as well the big cities.

The result is that Roshan now has more than 2.34 million subscribers and coverage across 56% of Afghanistan, making it the largest network operator in the country, according to Khoja. “A lot of our coverage is in the South which is quite unusual because it is the most dangerous part of the country. But when we came to Afghanistan we decided that if we could get coverage throughout the country and not just in the main cities, then the more people talk the less likely they are to fight, so even though we weren’t the first operator – we were the third – today we are the largest by coverage,” he says.

“We have over 230 cities and 33 out of 34 provinces covered already. In terms of population coverage we have 56% - about 20% to 30% more than our competition.”

But developing a network of this scope has not been easy. In the first three years, Roshan invested between US$75 million and $100 million on the ground every year. The company has already invested more than $75 million this year, bringing total investment in infrastructure building to date to $348 million. “In total, we’ve already invested near to $4 million which by far outstrips any of our competitors,” Khoja says.

“We will continue to expand coverage, and by the end of next year we will be about 65% population, then within two or three years we will be pretty much there. Our goal should be about 90% of the population covered in the next two or three years.”

Khoja insists that this investment in coverage is one of the main differentiators between Roshan and its rivals. “They [the other operators] claim they will spend that kind of money, but in reality they haven’t done it because it is a tough country,” he says.

“It is hard to get around and if you want to spend money it is difficult to put it on the ground. One of the key differentiators with us is our commitment, regardless of the situation, to invest in Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan,” he says.

Tough times

“How do you get a SIM card or scratch card to a remote village somewhere,” Khoja says, recalling the early days of Roshan’s rollout. “Sometimes it is tough, some days you take three steps forward and two steps back, but we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved. We have the largest distribution network in Afghanistan with over 250 dealers shops.”

To achieve this, Khoja and his team realised that they would have to adapt to the demands of the country and work closely with local people for many aspects of running the business. To this end, Roshan employed local people to carry out tasks such as selling mobile top up cards. The model has proved successful, and the company is increasingly looking to farm out other parts of the business, such as guarding and maintaining base stations to local people, particularly in more remote, tribal parts of the country.

“We respected the Afghan tradition and looked at their strengths and weaknesses,” Khoja says. “One of their strengths is that they are extremely good business people, extremely good traders, so why should we go and try to open our own shops?

“At the time we thought ‘let’s get the Afghans involved with franchise dealerships’, so that they buy the scratch cards from us and distribute them. They have better ways of protecting their businesses than we ever would, and so we started getting regional dealerships and village dealerships. It was incredible how this mushroomed and today we have the largest distribution network in Afghanistan.”

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