'Roshan' Telecom Shows How Business Can Bring Light to Afghanistan

Roshan COO Altaf Ladak speaking in Mumbai on Feb. 1, 2011. (Asia Society India Centre)

MUMBAI, February 1, 2011 - For much of the outside world, the only news from Afghanistan relates to war, the Taliban, and corruption. But one company, Roshan Telecom, believes that the private sector can play a crucial role in showing the country's positive aspects, and assisting in its reconstruction.

Altaf Ladak, COO of Roshan (Telecom Development Company Afghanistan Ltd.), spoke on "The Private Sector As a Catalyst for Change: Potential Roles of Businesses in Challenging Environments," explaining how his company is not just a telecom, but a major player in Afghanistan's development.

Roshan, which means "light" and "hope" in Dari and Pashto, is the leading telecom operator in Afghanistan, with over 4.2 million active subscribers across all of Afghanistan's provinces. When it entered the country in 2003, only 100,000 people had access to phones, one had to go to another country to make international calls, rates were exorbitant, coverage was poor, and infrastructure was minimal.

Today, Roshan contributes 6% of the government's domestic revenue. Its development projects have helped Afghanistan in many ways, from getting land de-mined for the construction of telephone towers to building infrastructure for coverage in otherwise inaccessible areas. It directly employs over 1,200 people and provides indirect employment to more than 30,000 more.

Ladak shared some of Roshan's core values and strategies with the Mumbai audience—chief among them its unusual effort to be accepted in the community and perceived as a long-term investor. Roshan, he explained, is committed to developing a middle-class of skilled labor to function in an internationally competitive environment. Some of its initiatives include training and hiring young people who come straight from refugee camps with no education, and former jihadists who agree to put down their arms.

The company provides many growth opportunities for its people to develop, and invests in them across areas from healthcare to English-language training. It adheres to its principles against corruption, promoting the empowerment of women, and refusing to pay the Taliban and local authorities illegal fees, despite threats from locals.

Drawing from his company's journey, Ladak made the case for companies to aim for the "double bottom line"—profit and social development. Roshan's story, he hoped, would show other industries the potential for investment in Afghanistan.