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Roshan: Afghanistan's First B Corp

The B Corp movement was started in the United States; however, in the years since its inception, it has spread all over the world. In less than a decade, companies in nearly 30 countries have been certified as B Corporations. Belief in the value of people, planet, and profits isn’t limited by location or language, and Certified B Corporations are making a difference in every market and sector in the world. A perfect example of the diversity of B Corps is Telecom Development Company Afghanistan Ltd, better known as Roshan.

In the early 2000s, after decades of conflict, telecommunications infrastructure was essentially non-existent in Afghanistan; fewer than 100,000 cellular connections existed and Afghans had to endure days of traveling to a neighboring country just to make a phone call. The rise of Roshan changed that.

B Lab sat down with Karim Khoja, Chief Executive Officer, to learn more.

How was Roshan founded, and what is its mission?

In 2003, The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development partnered with Monaco Telecom to make a calculated investment that, from inception, made Roshan’s social and financial goals symbiotic.  Our goal was to spearhead economic development and to facilitate greater social cohesion in Afghanistan through the introduction of accessible telecommunications technology.  We believe that the ability to speak with friends and family, wherever they are, is a right that every Afghan deserves. This core principal is reflected in Roshan’s slogan: Nazdik Shodan, meaning “Bringing You Closer”.
 
Our vision is to be the benchmark emerging market total communications company. By focusing on its customers, stakeholders and employees, Roshan provides quality and value, in an ethical manner, while also contributing to the socio-economic development of Afghanistan.

How is Roshan unique among telecommunications providers?

Roshan is unique among telecommunications providers because it was founded as a social enterprise, with a focus on financial results and a socio-economic development mission.  Our shareholders are Telia Sonera, Monaco Telecom International, and majority shareholder the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), which is part of the Aga Khan Development Network and focused on social and economic development.  As a result, at the core, our mandate is to not only operate a best-in-class telecommunications network, but to also use communications as a catalyst for development in a country ravaged by 30 years of war.  

This vision leads Roshan to execute some business decisions that have long-term impact, rather than short-term financial results.  For example, in 2004 Roshan built towers in Bamiyan, despite the business case showing no return on investment.  However, access to telecommunications proved to be a stimulator for the economy—the Friday market returned and tourism began to flourish. Now that the local economy has improved, the towers there are profitable. 

We have also used our industry expertise to launch four telemedicine links—connecting some of the most isolated and dangerous locations in Afghanistan with world-class international medical expertise.  As community members began to take advantage of access to specialists and medical professionals received training through the connections, hospital business expanded, making the links profitable. 

Finally, Roshan has an active corporate social responsibility program, building wells, e-learning centers, schools and playgrounds in the communities in which it operates.  There is a symbiotic relationship between this community support and the business.  In addition to providing the community with needed support, we engage the local community to protect the sites, reinforcing the community engagement model and resulting in lower security costs and fewer attacks on cellular sites. 

What motivated Roshan to get certified as a B Corp? How did the organization hear about the certification, and what was appealing about it?

We have always held ourselves to the highest standards of quality, including measuring ourselves on international standards.  We were the first company in Afghanistan to attain ISO certifications, and also the first B Corporation in Afghanistan (and still the only one to date).  The emphasis on providing quality products and services in Afghanistan is one of our core commitments to the people of Afghanistan, and attaining B Corp status is another measure of this quality commitment.

Additionally, Roshan prides itself on being innovative.  Pushing for triple-bottom-line and sustainable business practices is particularly forward-thinking in Afghanistan.  We want to continue to innovate and push the envelope in the local market and to measure ourselves against international standards. 

Has going through the certification process changed anything about the business? What did Roshan learn through certification?

The certification process was an excellent opportunity for introspection.  It helped us identify our strengths that we should continue to build on, and also areas where we can push ourselves.  We have been focused on the welfare of our employees from day one, including developing their skills and leadership capabilities.  Through Roshan Community, the corporate social responsibility arm of Roshan, the company has also made major contributions to the communities in which it operates.  Our next goal is to place more consideration on the environmental impact of our day-to-day operations. 

What do you see being the role of B Corporations in Afghanistan and its neighboring countries moving forward? How can B Corps make a difference in your particular regional context?

B Corp status enables Roshan to hold itself to world-class standards and to push the Afghan market to do the same.  It is proof that businesses can be profitable in Afghanistan and the region, while also benefiting the communities, environments, and people around them. 

Speaking of Afghanistan in particular, the emphasis when it comes to improving lives has been on the non-profit and public sectors so far. While these will continue to be important elements, Certified B Corporations can raise the profile of the private sector in accomplishing this mission.  

What advice would you give to a business owner in your region considering certification?

Go for it!  The certification process will help you identify your strengths and also your weaknesses.  It will highlight your needed areas of improvement so that you can refocus on your employees, communities, and the environment in addition to your ever-present profit objectives.

To learn more about Roshan and where else to find them online, check out their B Corp profile!

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