The extraordinary story of the only B Corp in Afghanistan

The extraordinary story of the only B Corp in Afghanistan
Image: Henri Campeã for Quartz
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This is the story of an 18-year-old project. Like many coming-of-age stories, it’s hopeful, but with a fierce undertow of loss.

Since its inception in 2003, Roshan has grown to become the biggest telecoms operator in Afghanistan, and the superlatives don’t stop there. It’s also the country’s biggest employer, employing 40,000 people directly—as engineers or office staff, for example—and indirectly, like the vendors who sell phone cards on foot or at tiny village kiosks. It’s one of Afghanistan’s biggest investors, and biggest taxpayers.

It is also the only B Corporation in Afghanistan. The B Corp designation means the company has adopted globally recognized business standards that encompass a lot of what it does—the community it’s striving to support, the enfranchised workforce it wants to have, and the kind of company it believes it can be—in a system that holds it internationally accountable.

It’s also a survivor: In 2017, the worst bombing in Kabul’s history—both by explosion size and number of casualties—took place outside Roshan’s headquarters, killing and wounding scores of employees. When the company’s founders talk about its successes now, the raw and recent memory colors their voices with sadness.

Company narratives often reference inflection points in their journeys. Leaders might call their workforces a “family,” or talk about how making the world a better place is becoming a corporate imperative. Most of that rhetoric sounds considerably less powerful once you’ve listened to Karim and Shainoor Khoja, a husband-and-wife team who, motivated by personal faith, backed by philanthropic wealth, and trained in business and health respectively, set out to bring mobile telephones to a country which barely had landlines and, at a cost, succeeded.

Making the call

Karim Khoja, Roshan’s CEO, is a Canadian citizen but has spent much of his life working internationally. He went to Afghanistan in 2002. He intended to stay three months, using his international telecoms expertise to advise a nascent sector. Almost 18 years later, he and Shainoor talked to me from Dubai, where she now lives, and where he is gradually spending more time. The plan at Roshan was always to employ a vast majority of Afghan staff, and ultimately to hand over the company to Afghan leadership, they explain. But it took a while to get there.

Backing for the project initially came from the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), a for-profit international development organization that is part of the Aga Khan Development Network, and which targets regions where foreign direct investment is lacking. It aims to do the work of community-building alongside creating sustainable businesses. For the Khojas, the Aga Khan—a hereditary imam and leader of the Ismaili Muslim people, a branch of Shia Islam—is a spiritual leader. AKFED now owns 51% of Roshan, with the rest held by Monaco Telecom International, and Telia, a Swedish telecom. Roshan was profitable until 2015, when Afghanistan’s telecoms industry, which had boomed in the years since its establishment, began to decline.

When Karim arrived, a staggering 99% of Afghans didn’t have access to a phone. There was no mobile industry. America’s war on terror, which started in 2001 in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the US that year, and is still going on, had destroyed much of the landline infrastructure. By 2002, the Taliban regime had been toppled, and American-supported state-building had begun.

Roshan wasn’t the very first telecom operator (that was the Afghan Wireless Communications Company in 2001) and in the wake of its success several others sprung up, in large part, the Khojas says, because Roshan paved the way, and refused to demand long exclusivity clauses. Now, 90% of Afghans have access to phones.

The Khojas talk about it as a business of connection.

The ability for people across the country to talk and message with each other, and with people abroad, has been transformative. “When Roshan came, it was a new way of being,” Naseem Akbar, who ran Harakat, an anti-corruption organization, told The Globe and Mail in 2014. “It was a new way of feeling. You can say that it revolutionized people’s lives.”

But, as anyone who has witnessed the mobile revolution of the past 20 years will know, phones aren’t just for phone calls. In 2008, Roshan was the first operator to launch M-Paisa, a mobile payments platform developed by Vodafone (and known elsewhere as M-Pesa), which made it possible for people in remote areas—for example, frontline police—to get paid.

The company employed women, many of whom were working for the first time in their lives. Under Taliban rule, women rarely had paying jobs outside the family home or land. Karim explains that in Roshan’s early days, employing women often meant picking them up, dropping them home, providing meals, and explaining again and again the value of a second family income, and the increasing social acceptability of women earning one.

Roshan cleared land mines to build phone towers powered by solar energy, and rebuilt them after they were regularly blown up by Taliban insurgents. They built an app, Malomat, through which rural farmers could get current market prices—via voice, if they weren’t able to read—letting them demand fair payment from middle men.

They built playgrounds. The 32 playgrounds, purposely constructed in “very Taliban areas,” Karim says, “became like outdoor community centers on a Friday, which is the Sabbath day… Because when kids of different ethnic backgrounds play together, our view was that they would not fight and kill each other in the future.”

Roshan playground
A Roshan playground.
Image: Roshan

Shainoor, who trained in public health and formerly worked as a physical therapist, managed much of the Roshan’s social responsibility arm. Her particular project was Telemedicine, connecting hospitals in Afghanistan, Pakistan, France, and Tajikistan, and connecting the specialists at those centers with local and rural doctors. In a speech in Toronto in 2017, she detailed some of the extraordinary achievements of the project:

That meant that we could get e-consultations, we could get diagnostics, we could get rural doctors to perform pioneering operations. Things like separating conjoined twins at birth. Things like removing a brain tumor from a neonate. Things like an in-vitro cardiac surgery. Procedures that would not be possible for any Afghan to get, let alone somebody at the base of the pyramid. We were increasing access. We were bringing quality. And we were bringing affordability to this population.

Khoja’s use of the past tense isn’t because all this is over. She is making a distinction between before the 2017 explosion, and after it.

An imperfect picture

There are problems with the business. Telecom isn’t the bright spot in Afghanistan’s development that it once looked to be. And Roshan and other telecom companies were accused in April 2019 of charging some customers too much and providing unsatisfactory service, though an official at the company said at the time that Roshan had discontinued some of the services that had caused problems. In reviews on Glassdoor, the anonymous reporting site, some former and current employees complain about lack of career progression and access to management (though there also are many positive reviews of the company).

And there are plenty of arguments for why private-sector involvement in post-conflict states is problematic. The Khojas aren’t Afghan, but from a privileged class of foreigners who make it their mission to rebuild places like Afghanistan which, some would say, never should have been invaded in the first place.

A Western journalist writing from outside the country can’t know how it feels to be on the ground; though Karim invited me to visit Roshan, I haven’t yet done so.

I came to the story of Roshan through my research of B Corporations, which led me to examine a lot of companies’ claims about how they’re changing to enfranchise staff, what they’re doing to make the world a better place or, in many cases, simply to row back the harm capitalist enterprises are constantly doing to it. What’s pretty clear is that, compared with many in the B Corp roster, and indeed in comparison with most companies I’ve studied in and outside that ecosystem, Roshan seems to have made a positive difference to the lives of its employees, and its customers, in a way that goes well beyond business.

Becoming a B Corp

Among the Khojas, it was Shainoor who first came across the B Corp community.

The movement was founded in the US in 2006 by three ex-business people who wanted to connect mission-driven companies. The first companies got certified in 2007, changing their legal designation and committing to work toward criteria in five segments: governance, workers, community, customers, and the environment.

To become a B Corp, companies have to score a minimum of 80 points out of a possible 200, and re-certify every three years. The points they score are publicly available. Roshan certified in 2012, making it a fairly early adopter. Its most recent score is 159.3, beating US outdoor-wear brand Patagonia (151.5 points) which is often cited as something of a gold-standard when it comes to corporations driven by purpose.

In 2009 and again in 2015, Harvard Business School published case studies on Roshan. “If you read [those studies], and when you read what B Corp stands for,” Karim Khoja says, “…it was a natural fit”, Shainoor finishes the sentence.

What it brought them included the ability to communicate, and commune, with like-minded business leaders in diverse geographies and a range of industries. Harvard and other schools have regularly sent interns to Afghanistan to study at the company.

Plenty of Roshan’s concerns overlap with those of other B Corps, the largest cohort of which are in the US, but many are also distinct. For example, the B Corp questionnaire awards points for diverse hiring. In Afghanistan, diverse hiring means actively seeking to hire women as well as men, against social norms. It also means having a sensitivity to regional, religious, and cultural differences, while at the same time avoiding the creation of distinct ethnic teams.

“We were very careful about putting the right ethnic groups in the right geographies,” Shainoor says of the challenge of employing a mix of Uzbeks, Hazaras, Tajiks, Pashtuns, and people from other backgrounds, all of whom had been recently involved in a civil war. “But [we were] also mixing those groups, because what we wanted to do was build a healthy future.”

There are now about 2,500 B Corps globally. Many are small businesses, but increasingly big companies like Danone, The Body Shop, Athleta, and The Guardian Media Group have certified or begun to do so through their subsidiaries. Since it became a B Corp, Roshan has won awards from the certifying body almost every year, including being recognized as one of the best 10% of B Corps for overall social and environmental impact.

A true community rallies when things get tough. After the 2017 Kabul attack, being a B Corp mattered more than at any other time, Shainoor says. Messages poured in. International B Corps that only knew of Roshan by name began collecting money for the families of the people who had died.

“It was a very, very dark day for us,” Shainoor said in her Toronto speech. “And it was in this darkness that I realized the power of community.”

What happened in 2017

On May 31, 2017, at 8:30 am local time, a full fuel tanker carrying 1.5 tons of explosives headed towards a clutch of embassies in central Kabul; its final target was the US embassy.

“It was a busy time. It was commuter time. People were dropping off children to school. The roads were jam-packed with cars. Our drivers, our cleaners, our employees, they were all coming to work with their to-do lists in their minds,” Shainoor said in her Toronto speech later that year. When she mentioned the employees, she touched her own head briefly, and her voice cracked.

At 8:35 am, the tanker exploded—prematurely, it turns out—roughly 400 meters from Roshan’s headquarters. In total, 90 people were killed, and 400 wounded. Of the dead, 32 were Roshan employees, “and 100 of those injured, some of them seriously, were our own Roshan family,” Khoja says. The company’s headquarters were reduced to rubble.

Speaking from Dubai, the Khojas tell more stories. A baby whose father had been killed in a previous explosion lost its mother in the Kabul blast. The company insurance paid to support the child for two years, and Roshan took care that the infant found a new home with extended family. One young man from the finance department had been due to leave a month earlier, to start a new life in Canada. Karim had personally asked him to stay on for a while, to help the company through the end-of-year accounting period. At the young man’s funeral, his father, Karim recalls, said: “My son my loved you and Roshan more than he loved us.” 

Shainoor says that the network was up and running five hours after the blast. Some 48 hours later, after the dead had been buried and as the company’s executives wondered what to do next, Roshan’s staff came back, “pouring” into work with bandages and slings, on crutches, “almost comical if it wasn’t so sad,” Shainoor said in Toronto. “They wanted to get on with the work at hand.”

The future

Among those helping to get the wounded to the hospital and tend to the dead was Shireen Rahmani. Rahmani had worked at Roshan since the beginning, joining as an assistant after her ambitions to go to medical school were thwarted by the Taliban. She, too, was injured in the 2017 attacks, with large pieces of glass embedded in her leg, head, and face, Karim recalls, but she still made sure everyone was looked after. At age 38 in 2019, she is technically a millennial. She is due to take over as Roshan’s CEO in the next two years.

Afghanistan is a country of the young. Almost three quarters of its population of 35 million is below the age of 30, according to the World Bank. The average age of Roshan’s employees is between 25 and 28. The company’s millennial workers are doing well, according to Karim—they have houses, cars, and of course phones. Their kids go to school. The only challenge, he laughs, is making sure they don’t get too cocky.

In many parts of the world, it is younger employees driving for corporate change: better working conditions, better work and family balance, better stewardship of natural resources. These are all values B Corps support, and so it makes sense that it’s often young people championing certification. Lorna Davis, who helped lead the early transformations at Danone, the US subsidiary of which is currently the biggest B Corp in the world, and who now advises other companies on certifying, told Quartz that in her experience it was often young, non-senior employees advocating for becoming B Corps, and doing the work of getting companies over the line.

The 2017 attack in Kabul showed that the future, for a company increasingly Afghan in its leadership, is still deeply uncertain. But it also showed that the company could spring back, even from the depths of chaos. The existence of a phone network meant that, after the atrocity, people could soon call their loved ones. The Telemedicine project helped them get better care. It was “the very doctors, nurses, and healthcare professionals that we had trained, that were now saving our lives…That, therein was the power of community, and of the giver becoming the receiver,” Shainoor said in Toronto. 

In the days that followed, the messages of support from the B Corp community kept them going: “The support and the outpouring of love, affection, prayers. If there was anything that carried us though, it was that,” Karim told Quartz.

The Khojas are making their gradual exit. They didn’t want a story written about them. Roshan’s story is the story of a team, they insisted, which they also call a family. Plenty of management experts will tell you that’s an analogy best avoided. In this case, though, the parallel seems apt.