We can't avoid the war around us: Life as an Afghan mobile telco

Roshan faces having 19 of its 1,000 base stations attacked every month, but life is improving for Afghanistan's largest mobile network operator.

It took 10 years before the Taliban knew not to kidnap employees of the Afghanistan mobile company Roshan because the company would not pay ransoms.

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(Image by Josh Taylor/ZDNet)

Roshan, which means "light", was set up in 2003, two years into the decade-long US-led war on terror.

The company's CEO Karim Khoja told the Mobile World Congress (MWC) event in Barcelona on Tuesday that telecommunications barely existed in the war-torn nation at the time.

"10 years ago in Afghanistan, you had to walk 700km to make a phone call. For us to put in a base site, we had to de-mine every single site of ours," he said.

"There is no electricity in Afghanistan. We provide 1,000 base stations with generators with fuel. We had to get fuel there by donkey or by rail, or by buses."

Now the company has 6 million active subscribers across 240 towns in 34 provinces in Afghanistan.

The biggest impact from expanded mobile service has been seen in healthcare, Khoja said, putting the recent improvement in life expectancy from 40 years to 55 years down to the availability of telecommunications to allow people to call for doctors and receive treatment remotely using telemedicine links.

He said that telecommunications has allowed farmers to break free of having to grow poppy plants for warlords as part of Afghanistan's drug trade.

"Farmers are marginalised because middlemen, when they go to the bazaar, he buys their crop at lower than market price, and then sells it on. What happens is they fall into debt during the winter, they go to the warlords, and borrow money at 50 percent interest rates, they take over their land, and they force them to grow poppy," he said.

"Today, using a Roshan product, they can get real-time access with voice -- because they don't know how to read an SMS text. They can get the price of the crop before they go to the bazaar.

"We have created closed user groups with other farmers so they don't have to go to the other farm. They can, as a consortium, sell that product at a price that befits the price they have had to pay. So therefore, they don't fall into debt."

Roshan continually faces threats from the Taliban and other insurgents, Khoja said, with 19 base stations attacked each month in Afghanistan. That number dropped significantly, he said, once Roshan began getting locals to protect the base stations, rather than hiring international security agencies.

"We used to pay $14 million for foreign security companies to guard our sites, and we used to get attacked," he said.

"We went to the villagers [and] we said 'We will give you the site. You guard it, and if the network isn't down and it stays up 24 hours a day, and the revenue increases, then we will share that with you.'

"What we found was the number of sites attacked, and the hours that the network was down [improved by] 50 percent. We saved $7 million, and we didn't engage foreign security companies, we engaged villagers. We empowered civil society."

Attacks are unavoidable, however.

"We can't avoid the fact that we will have a war going around our base station and we will get picked on," Khoja added.

Roshan is still pressured by the Taliban and the government to shut off access to Facebook and other social networks, and is constantly asked to pay bribes or ransoms. Khoja said he has always refused: "We do not pay bribes. We have never paid a bribe to a government minister or to the Taliban."

Khoja recalled a recent kidnapping of a Roshan employee by the Taliban that was over in a matter of hours when the kidnappers realised where the employee worked.

"He said 'they were really upset because they know if they kept me, they'd have to feed me, look after me, and if they killed me they'd have to bury me because Roshan won't pay money'."

Two customer service representatives for Roshan were also imprisoned by a local governor because Khoja refused to give him $500 in scratch cards.

"I called him and I said, 'If you don't release them in two hours, I will switch the network off, and I will go on radio and say it was because of the governor'," he said.

"He called my bluff, I switched the network off, and two hours later the whole village got rid of him, and they complained to the president, and the next day he wasn't the governor."

Roshan also has to determine its responsibility to help law enforcement. This comes at a great cost to the telco, Khoja said.

"We have to keep that data for seven years, and if there is any kidnapping or any insurgency, the agencies can come to us and ask us to provide that information," he said.

"We will always ask them to provide legal recourse as to why they are doing this. If we don't, they harass us. We have a department of 40 people who handle this.

"Why am I a policeman? That's not my role."

When a customer wants to register for a Roshan service, the company takes a photo of them, as well as a thumbprint that scans in for government records. Khoja said this costs $3 per customer. He added that it isn't clear, when government officers request access to the records, whether it is going to be for lawful purposes.

"I don't know if that agent who is coming to get it is authorised or not. He might be doing it to coerce somebody," he said.

"There's a moral dilemma. It is very difficult to know how to do this."

Khoja said he believes that ultimately empowering society in Afghanistan comes through empowering women and girls.

"Our view is if we can build a civil society, give that connectivity and through empowering women and girl children, because we found if you empower women and girls, then you're actually empowering a nation," he said.

"The women will bring that into a family and into the village."

Approximately 20 percent of Roshan staff members are female, and 37 percent of the senior executives in the company are women.

"They are far more honest, and they do not rob us. Guys, sorry, but that's the truth," he said.

"We've seen a reduction in fraud, and we've seen a reduction in embezzlement."

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