Doing Business in Afghanistan the B Corp Way

(3BL and Just Means) - Based in Afghanistan, Roshan is changing the world's outlook on the country, changing the nation’s reputation from 'post-conflict' to innovation, security and equality: A Benefit Corporation ranking in the top 10% for Community and Workers among other B Corps. ISO certified for technology, customer care and sales.  2013 Award Recipient as the Most Innovative Company of the Year, the CSR Program of the Year, Customer Service Department of the Year for the International Business Awards for Middle East & Africa. And the list could go on and on. Roshan has received GSM Marketing, TMT Finance and World Communication awards, at least one award every year since they began in 2003.

As the leading telecommunications company in Afghanistan and the country's first Benefit Corporation (B Corp), Roshan has put phones into the hands of average, Afghan citizens. A short, nine years ago, Afghans had to cross the borders to make phone calls, including local calls to neighboring villages. There were only 35 lines in all of Afghanistan, most of them owned by the government. Satellite phones were limited and cost $2,000 to purchase and $12 dollars a minute to use. An average Afghan couldn’t afford to walk across the country to place a call. But that is history. Today, Afghanistan ranks number 50 out of 220 countries for connectivity.

"We made that happen," said Karim Khoja, CEO of Roshan.

"Though that [ranking 50 out of 200] doesn’t sound like a lot, Afghanistan doesn’t rank high on the list for many things. We are pretty proud of being a part of that," said March Bishop, Roshan's Senior Manager of Marketing and Communications.

Khoja's boasting is not in vain. Roshan has nearly six million active subscribers and a network that covers over 240 cities and towns in all of the country's 34 provinces.  They are leading the way in the telecommunications industry in Afghanistan while simultaneously creating shared value for local communities. Khoja defines this shared value as using Roshan's telecommunication technology to engage with women and children.

"We want to reduce pain in those constituencies. Things like access to healthcare, reducing infant mortality, creating jobs, and building civil society among women. We don’t need to go and look for the need. It’s there," Khoja told me.

Since Roshan's inception in 2003, they have invested approximately $600 million in Afghanistan. They pride themselves as the country's single largest investor and the largest taxpayer, contributing approximately 5% of the Afghan government's overall domestic revenue. Additionally, they have made great strides to empower women by providing economic opportunity.

"I'm very curious to understand how you have created a workforce of 20% women. How have you done this while maintaining cultural sensitivities?" I asked Khoja.

"When I told people I wanted to hire women at Roshan they told me I was crazy. But, I went to people’s homes and asked women to come to work.  I asked men why they wouldn’t let the women come to work and they told me ‘because they will be with strange men.’ And I said, ‘no, they won’t be with strange men. They will be with Roshan employees.'  We only choose [hire] people who have dignity, who respect women. We have values at Roshan, like respect, honesty, and integrity. And we were culturally sensitive.  We chaperoned women to work. We ensured her parents that she would be picked up and dropped off from home. We also gave her a phone so they would be able to contact her at work. We ensured them that when she gets to Roshan, people will be looking after her and she will have training.

"Over time, we had more employees on board and the trust levels were built. The men at Roshan have Roshan values and if they don’t follow the rules, I’ll fire them. However, I also expect women to be working in an upright, respectful manner with the appropriate clothing and not to strike up an affair because I will fire them. And it works. Now we have men and women working together. We don’t force them to have lunch together. The men sit together and the women sit together. But they work together. They have discussions about business strategy and solve technical problems together. They sit next to each. And today, we’ve shown that men and women can work together and they can be equal based on the merit of their competence."

Roshan challenged marketing etiquette in Afghanistan when they published an ad with a woman, her child and music in 2003- the first advertisement of any kind in Afghanistan to portray a woman.

"When you look at that ad, if you know anything about Afghanistan in 2003, it was pushing the envelope. But we didn’t succumb to threats by the Taliban though it was a risk to put a woman in an advertisement. It paid huge dividends. It showed people we were respectful of women but also that just because women had never been in ads, didn’t mean we weren’t going to do it," said Khoja.

"Have you been accused of infringing on cultural norms in terms of your commitment to empowering women?" I asked Khoja.

"Yes, we've had a backlash. We hosted “Afghan Star” [similar to “American Idol”]. We encouraged women to be culturally appropriate, but to participate. We had many threats from the Taliban because of our use of Facebook and Twitter. But just because the Taliban puts out threats doesn’t mean we aren’t going to do things. Our job as a change agent is to come and bring global best practices because that’s what the telecom industry does. Today, if you’re an Afghan woman, no longer do you have to be scared and hide and pretend. You have the ability to go on “Afghan Star”and you have the ability to win and be respected," Khoja explained.

"Our way is to bring best practices. We are here to care about human rights, civil society and bring them [Afghanistan] into the 21st century. As a telecom company we are a catalyst. Sometimes we have to be brave enough to take a risk."

"I'm curious about your function as a B Lab Certified Corporation? How do you balance profit maximization with mission and multi-stakeholder demands? How have you been able to prioritize your commitment to social impact?" I asked Khoja.

"There is absolutely no conflict whatsoever between developing, pushing the envelope, caring, profit maximization and the triple bottom line or shared values.  You see dividends when you care about your staff, when you give back to the community, about what is allowing you to earn your living. And that symbiotic circle may not have effects right away, but over time, it does.

"Afghans believe in Roshan because Roshan gives back to them. They say, 'that’s the brand that gives us water in our village. That’s the brand that brings modern medicine so a baby could have an open-heart surgery by an Afghan doctor. That's the brand that built a playground and now the kids play together. That’s the brand that gave my wife a job and allowed us to become a two-income family.' Brand equity isn’t built in a day or a year. It's built over time. You look at our shareholders like Aga Khan Development Network (ADKN). If they were short-term, they would not have come to Afghanistan. We came when no one else wanted to come. What’s very interesting is that when everyone started leaving Afghanistan our shareholders said, 'get up and tell the world we are staying and we will continue to invest.'"

In order to ensure a local community will take responsibility for a Roshan social project, Roshan only funds it for three years. After that, it is up to the community to find a way to sustain it.

"If you give charity people expect. If you give accountability and responsibility, it becomes theirs because they are paying for it and have to maintain it," Khoja said.

Roshan has seen communities embrace Roshan's investment into 22 playgrounds each costing $100,000. But this hasn't been the case for their public operator, microfinance program geared for marginalized women.  Though two hundred women continue to participate as public operators, Roshan has decided to stop investment of this program because many women faced strong opposition from men because they were becoming too economically independent.

"Our intention was not to put women at risk.... My job isn’t to try and become a psychologist. My job is to give people the chance to better their lives," Khoja explained.

"We are world class. We are in the top 10 percent for Community and for Workers among B Corps. We have never tried to benchmark our work against local companies. We are world class and we won’t pay bribes and we won’t succumb to threats and violence. And that’s what we’ve done and we won’t deviate from that," Khoja said.

Thanks to Mr. Khoja and Ms. Bishop for this engaging conversation. More importantly, thanks to Roshan and their investors for committing to the flourishing of Afghanistan. Roshan is paving the way for social entrepreneurs. This will be one of hundreds of stories of 'where business meets good' to come from Afghanistan in the coming years. I'm sure of it.

Read about Roshan's work here.

Sources: Roshan, AKDN