The extraordinary story of the only B Corp in Afghanistan
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it” says Simon Sinek in his hugely popular TedTalk – “Start with Why?” Companies across the world are increasingly attaching a purpose to their business. Indeed, there is an official certification for companies that go beyond profit motive – B Corp is a private certification issued by B Lab.
“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.
…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.”
This article talks about the only company in Afghanistan with this certification – Roshan, a telecom operator.
“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…Now, 90% of Afghans have access to phones.
The ability for people across the country to talk and message with each other, and with people abroad, has been transformative….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.”
…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.”