Jun 12, 2007

You Don't Want No Drama

Currently, the most popular ringtone there is the Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps".

Afghanistan's largest mobile-phone company is only four years' old and has just made its first annual profit, but there are still teething problems.

Its field staff have to be wary of kidnappings and landmines, a sub-contractor was recently beheaded, Taliban militia have reportedly threatened to destroy its communications towers -- and most of its 1.3 million customers cannot read or write.

Apart from that, business is good for Telecom Development Company Afghanistan Ltd, better known as Roshan, at the dangerous front line of the mobile-phone industry, according to its smooth-talking British chief operating officer.

"Fortunately we have not had anyone (among Roshan staff) lost or killed, though 18 months ago a sub-contractor was killed but it was someone who did not follow any security rules," said Altaf Ladak, dressed crisply in a dark suit and tie.

"He was kidnapped and actually beheaded."

Afghanistan is as much a war zone as a telecoms market: about 50,000 foreign troops are battling an Islamist insurgency being waged by the Taliban, a militia group that ran the country until U.S.-led forces invaded and evicted it from power in 2001.

Suicide bombings, kidnappings, road-side bombs and violent crime are part of everyday life in this nation of around 30 million people.

Foreigners live behind concrete barriers and coils of razor wire. Armoured NATO troop carriers prowl the streets and just about every Afghan in uniform carries an AK-47.

But for the first time, mobile phones are threatening to outnumber guns on the streets of Afghanistan.

Only 8 percent of Afghans own a mobile phone but the market is growing at around 100,000 new customers a month, says Roshan, which means "Light" in the local Dari language.

"It's the fastest growing market in the world today in terms of penetration," Ladak said after giving a guided tour of Roshan's flagship Kabul store.

Freshly painted, the store looks on the inside like a mobile phone shop anywhere else in the world, except it has an armed guard and a sign over its main gate depicting an AK-47 with a red cross through it. "No entry with weapons," it warns.


Last month, local media reported that Talibs had threatened to destroy Roshan's communications towers, accusing the company of providing their mobile-phone numbers to U.S. and Afghan military forces. The Taliban are Roshan customers as well.

"We heard about it," Ladak said, referring to the media reports. But he said Roshan had never received a direct threat from the Taliban and none of its towers had been destroyed.

Sometimes, when people are kidnapped and their captors call to make a ransom demand, a distraught relative or friend will ask Roshan to identify the captor's number. All Afghan mobile-phone numbers have to be registered by law to a name and address.

But Roshan says it won't reveal the identity of a customer to anyone other than the Communications Ministry.

"People will ask us for information if some of their friends have been kidnapped. We won't give that to them," Ladak said.

Roshan is a mixture of business and development assistance, majority-owned by a group controlled by wealthy benefactor Prince Karim Aga Khan, but also part-owned by Monaco Telecom, a firm whose major shareholder is Britain's Cable & Wireless.

Roshan has about half of the Afghan market, ahead of its older rival Afghan Wireless, a private firm backed by wealthy local businessman Ehsan Bayat, who is also a major benefactor.

Roshan made revenue in 2005 of $150 million, and turnover is growing at 20 to 30 percent every year, Ladak said, adding that the firm employed about 1,000 people, almost all of them Afghans.

But the challenges are many and not always related to security. For example, text messaging should be booming in a poor country like Afghanistan, because it is much cheaper than voice calls -- but most of the population cannot read or write.

In response, Roshan is developing a system of pictograms that Afghans can use for everyday communication.

So would Roshan list on a stock exchange one day?

"That's just not part of the philosophy," Ladak said. "Our philosophy is to be here for the long term and to look at more of the social side and rural development."

Can you imagine the drama when the Taliban leaders with teen-age daughters see their monthly cell bills?

There will be a whole new category of "Honor killings."


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