James Militzer

‘I had 250 angry police officers banging at my door’: The CEO of Roshan on the promise and perils of providing mobile money in Afghanistan

As the CEO of Afghanistan’s biggest telco, Karim Khoja has been at the front lines of that country’s struggles to modernize its economy. His experiences as head of a foreign-owned company in the tumultuous past decade have been both inspiring and nerve-racking.

In January 2003, after the U.S. military intervention began in Afghanistan, Roshan was awarded one of the country’s first mobile network licenses at a time when it had virtually no telecommunications infrastructure. It quickly grew from 30,000 to nearly six million subscribers, covering more than 60 percent of the population and making it Afghanistan’s leading telecommunications provider (and largest taxpayer). In 2008, it expanded its services into mobile money, partnering with Vodafone to provide a local version of the famed mobile money product M-Pesa.

But as Khoja describes it, the product roll-out was rather tense.

“We had started a trial with the Afghan National Police in Wardak Province, which is quite a dangerous province,” he recalls. “We registered the first 250 officers and sent them their salary the first month. And they came into my office and banged on the doors, and wanted to see me – they were very upset. So there were literally 250 police officers standing there saying ’You didn’t pay us! We got robbed – we didn’t get our money!’ I asked my product managers what was happening, and they said ’No, we sent the money!’ So we looked at their phones and guess what? There was a text message saying their money was there – but none of them could read or write. So we realized one big thing about being in a different culture: don’t assume anything.”

Roshan changed its product, and the next month the company telephoned its mobile money recipients to tell them when their money was in their phones. They also added a feature allowing users to make transactions by voice. They soon got a more pleasant surprise. “The next month I had 250 police officers banging at my door, and I’m like ’Oh my god, not again, I’m going to be killed,’” Khoja says. “And they all walked in, and each one of them kissed me on both cheeks. And they said to me ’Sir, you gave us a 50 percent increase in our salaries!’” It turned out that this was the first time the officers had received their full wages, since a portion of their previous cash payments had always been skimmed off by a series of unscrupulous officials as it made its way down through the bureaucracy.

In Part 2 of our Mobile Money Movers series, Khoja chats with Kyla Yeoman, program manager for Global Envision, a blog managed by NextBillion Content Partner Mercy Corps, about the lessons he’s learned in bringing mobile money to Afghanistan, how Roshan is diversifying its mobile product line, and how these services could transform the lives of the people it reaches.

Note: Part 1 of the series featured Sitoyo Lopokoiyit, head of Strategy for Financial Services at Safaricom. Future interviews will include:

digital payments