This guest post is written by my colleague Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a fellow at CFR and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program. She tells the story of several technology entrepreneurs who are defying the odds to build successful businesses in Afghanistan. As she writes, these entrepreneurs are not only seeking profits; they are also aiming to build a more peaceful and prosperous future for their country. A post by Tae Yoo of Cisco last week on CFR’s Development Channel also highlighted technology’s role in driving development in Afghanistan.
Around the world, entrepreneurs drive economic growth. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) account for about 90 percent of all businesses, and according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, an estimated 140 million entrepreneurs are expected to create at least five new jobs each over the next five years. As I have argued in a CFR Working Paper Entrepreneurship in Postconflict Zones, the development of private enterprise is an important stabilizing force, particularly in postconflict countries plagued by political instability and civil unrest.
Afghanistan is no exception. Despite the bleak news often reported from the country—from insurgency to rampant corruption—a number of Afghans are choosing to fight for peace and stabilization by creating jobs and generating growth. This unlikely band of tech entrepreneurs is dreaming of Google from its perch in the Kabul Valley.
In a country where only 3 to 10 percent of the country’s 30 million people have Internet access, technology seems an unexpected source of hope; yet, there are “impossibly optimistic and totally obsessed aspiring tech moguls” in Afghanistan who believe that “computing will not only help make them money but also secure peace in their land.” Both men and women are among these tech entrepreneurs combating the odds and serving the country’s youth budge. Each of these young professionals has a uniquely compelling story of how they have utilized their passion and talent for computing to start businesses and innovate for peace, and their stories are told in this month’s Fast Company magazine.
One of these entrepreneurs, Ahmad Zahedi, launched a website design business called TechSharks, but soon realized that the company’s prospective clients did not understand the value of web design. His passion for computers and programming is far from common, and part of his business’s success relies on his ability to transform the Afghan mindset concerning the Internet. Zahedi is making progress despite the obstacles: Just two years since its launch, TechSharks has expanded its staff to seven and anticipates doubling its revenue to $50,000, a remarkable development given Afghanistan’s rank as one of the poorest countries in the world, with annual per-capita GDP of around $600.
Another tech pioneer Hakim Ahmadi cofounded INEX, a company that builds local- and wireless-area networks for clients such as the Afghan military. Like Zahedi, Ahmadi dreams of using his business for societal change and hopes to use the Internet and technology to build a foundation for stability and modernity in Afghanistan. Both men hold fast to the notion that with time and peace, literacy, technology, and jobs will open endless possibilities for the country’s future.
Yet, Afghanistan’s lack of security has proved to be a daunting challenge for business. According to The Asia Foundation’s 2011 Survey of the Afghan People, over one-third of Afghans identified insecurity as the biggest problem in the country, closely followed by unemployment. The 2012 Survey of the Afghan People will be released November 14—stay tuned in the next few weeks to read CFR’s analysis of the latest numbers.
In the meantime, as the international community debates the shape and extent of its military, humanitarian, and economic involvement after the looming 2014 troop withdrawal deadline, Afghan techies continue coding. Women, in particular, are playing a unique role in Afghanistan’s tech revolution despite facing societal disapproval, family pressure, and even threats of violence.
Twenty-five year old Roya Mahboob started Afghan Citadel Software in 2010 with several former classmates from Herat University’s computer-science department. At the outset she didn’t realize she could earn more money doing the web design she loved. Today, however, her company is the most profitable at a U.S. Department of Defense-sponsored incubator. Presently, 11 out of 18 Citadel employees are women.
Though she faces pushback from possible clients reluctant to work with women and distant relatives who tell her father that women shouldn’t work outside the home, Mahboob argues that technology is women’s work as much as men’s. And she says she is determined to be a part of her country’s future.
That future is full of uncertainty. But that has not stopped these entrepreneurs from holding fast to their business dreams, for personal success, but also for a peaceful Afghanistan.