In The Heart Of Afghanistan, Entrepreneurs Innovate For Peace

Impossibly optimistic and totally obsessed, Afghanistan’s aspiring tech moguls believe that computing will not only help make them money but also secure peace in their land.

In 2010, Ahmad Reza Zahedi started a website design business called TechSharks. It was the realization of a longtime dream for Zahedi, 30, a modest, soft-spoken man who sports a short ponytail and who, like so many other tech entrepreneurs, fell in love with computing as a teenager. He recalls with undimmed wonder the summer day 16 years ago when an older brother brought home three boxes. Inside one was a keyboard. Another held a 14-inch monitor. The third, a computer case with everything else. The Zahedi family’s first PC “was terrific for me,” he says.

Better yet was an accompanying gift just for him. “It was a book about learning Pascal,” says Zahedi. “I started learning programming, and I would sit and work on the computer all day long. I never got tired.” He improved his coding skills online, and he played games–lots of them. “I love games too much,” he says bashfully. “I have finished Crysis, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Battlefield 3, and every version of Angry Birds.”

At first, TechSharks’s prospective clients shared none of Zahedi’s passion or sophistication. Few understood the value of what he was selling. “When we met with customers,” he says, “we had to explain the difference between emails and websites, what is hosting, what is a domain.” But in 2011, the business nearly broke even. This year, Zahedi has expanded his staff to seven and expects revenue to double, to $50,000. What may seem a pittance in this era of multimillion-dollar funding rounds is, for Zahedi, a triumph. You can’t measure his success by Silicon Valley’s standards. They don’t apply in the valley where he’s based, 12 time zones away in Kabul, Afghanistan.

It would be nearly impossible for entrepreneurs in that richer, more peaceful Valley to imagine the minefield of challenges confronting Afghanistan’s tech startups. There is, of course, the ongoing battle against the Taliban. War destroyed whatever education system existed before 2001, and today the adult literacy rate hovers around 25%. While collecting good data is nearly impossible in Afghanistan, guesstimates by the government, the World Bank, and the United Nations suggest that only 3% to 10% of the country’s 30 million people have Internet access. The bleak reality is that Afghanistan remains among the world’s poorest countries, with an annual per-capita GDP of around $600.

Yet such stats don’t dim the optimism of Zahedi or others in the small circle of entrepreneurs determined to use technology to change Afghanistan. These men–and a few women–see their businesses as a foundation for stability and modernity. Literacy, technology, jobs–with time and peace, these entrepreneurs say, anything is possible. But it’s also clear that these first steps toward a tech revolution will halt without outside support–moral and financial. And if the world gives up on them and the sound of clicks fades amid the thud of rockets and a return to civil war, they see little hope, for themselves or for their companies.

Tech entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, center, runs one of the most successful tech startups in the Afghan city of Herat. | Photo by Zalmai

If you head southwest from downtown Kabul, dart through a few roundabouts, and muscle past cyclists lugging petrol, a shepherd and his sheep, lumbering NATO convoys, green Afghan army trucks, and teetering, commuter-packed buses, you will land at a main road near the start of the Karteh Char neighborhood. Stop at the squat office building with green glass panels sandwiched by cement and satellite dishes sunning on the roof. Then climb the off-kilter cement staircase–be careful, because there is no railing–to the second floor, where you will find a door with a white sign that says techsharks in blue and black letters.

Inside this modest office, the most remarkable thing is the turquoise paint on the walls. The usual electronics–desktops, laptops, printers, monitors–sigh and hum, crowded on wooden tables. Twentysomething programmers work silently next to their even younger interns, and the only noise aside from the clickety-clack of keyboards is Adele’s lush voice, murmuring “Someone Like You” from a computer in the corner.

Zahedi eagerly shows me the websites he and his team have built over the past two years. He loads the National Museum of Afghanistan’s site. “This was built with help of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul,” he says. He types “” into his browser. “And this is the site we built for Bokhdi News Agency,” he says. “It is an Afghan news company.”

Suddenly, the tour’s over: a whir, and the power goes out. The sun-warmed room goes dark, save for a few streams of light from the windows. One of Zahedi’s staff gets up to start the battery-powered UPS–the unlimited power supply that’s a necessity in a city where the main source of electricity usually dies at least once a day.

The unpredictable infrastructure is just one thing that Zahedi had to adjust to after moving to Kabul seven years ago. He was born and raised in Iran; his parents, who have six other children, had fled there in 1979 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. After stints working in a sewing factory and a library, and, eventually, in programming, he decided to come “home” to seek his fortune and explore life as a nonrefugee.

TechSharks has benefited from the foreign presence in Afghanistan. Its clients include the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Still, he says, “technology businesses like this are not taken seriously here, not like a construction company or working with security.” Funded even more generously by foreigners, both those industries have prospered, making them among the most desirable for young people. “Most people are using the Internet for checking email–simple things,” Zahedi says. “But my idea is that the Internet is not just for this.”

“Bill Gates created something that the world needed, and he gave it to the market at exactly the right time,” says Hakim Ahmadi, 25. Two years ago, Ahmadi cofounded INEX, which builds local- and wireless-area networks for clients including the Afghan military. “My dream is first profit,” Ahmadi says, “then doing something in this society to change it.”

While INEX sees great opportunity in the Afghan market, there are also formidable obstacles. Security has been a huge challenge. The firm has had to turn down work–especially in southern Afghanistan, where both fighting and aid dollars are abundant–because hiring security for a job would erase any profit.

That said, much has changed already. “Technologies in Afghanistan are growing every day,” says Yousef Ebrahimi, founder of PAL.IT, a company launched in February that specializes in hard-disk repair and data recovery. He points to mobile phones as a harbinger of what is possible when the country’s youth bulge meets the technology it craves. In 2001, less than 1% of Afghanistan’s population had access to mobile phones. Today, cellular networks reach 60% of Afghans, and the telecommunications sector is still growing rapidly. Half of households have at least one cell phone. Four carriers now have GSM licenses, and in urban areas, it is not unusual to see people carry SIM cards from two or three of them.

The blossoming of the telecoms sector has been a blessing for Jamshid Sultanzada, 27, who is from the relatively cosmopolitan city of Herat. After the Taliban fell in 2001, his tech skills won him a job with the country’s first mobile-services firm, the Afghan Wireless Communications Co. Though he had no university education, he knew his way around a computer–and he knew Google. “Whatever I did not know,” he says, “I would Google it, read the articles, and learn about it. The Internet played a huge role in my education.”
That openness to the outside world has defined Sultanzada–who now runs two companies, Afghan Host, which hosts websites, and, the Afghan equivalent of WordPress–and transformed his career. In April, he traveled to the United States to meet tech entrepreneurs as part of a program sponsored by the not-for-profit Bpeace, which supports high-potential entrepreneurs in conflict regions. He is also one of nine entrepreneurs in a U.S. Department of Defense-sponsored incubator in Herat that helps founders with strategy and operations.

Sultanzada believes that the Internet’s communication potential is what Afghanistan needs. “When someone has a new baby, I hope that on that same day, he would create a blog for that child and start posting photos and keep it up to date,” he says. “I want to see blogging grow so much in Afghanistan. I want every Afghan business to have its own website. And I want to be the one who provides that service.”

The Internet doesn’t just import information into Afghanistan; it can also export. “War is just one issue that we have,” says Sultanzada. “This is not all over Afghanistan–it is just in parts.” After being asked by so many Americans whether technology really existed in his country, Sultanzada, who is one of some 300,000 Afghans on Facebook, created a Facebook page to educate them. He and his friends began posting photos of their rather ordinary daily lives. “I hope this page will grow,” he says, “so that we can show the world it is not all about war in Afghanistan.” The name of the page: “Afghanistan is NOT that bad.”

Public signs of an Afghan tech community emerged a year ago, when Mahdi Rezaei, a 27-year-old IT administrator who also helps at INEX, organized the first meeting of the Kabul chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery. ACM bills itself as “the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society”–there are chapters in nearly 70 nations–and Rezaei wanted Afghans to be part of it. “The purpose of this community is to advance computing as a science and a profession,” he says. “Now ACM members can be aware of technology events around the world and bring change to our academic societies and our technology market.”

Rezaei invited friends and contacts within the tech community to the inaugural ACM Kabul event, promising tea, cookies, and a tech talk. Two dozen men showed up, filling rows of white plastic lawn chairs in the Afghanistan Cultural House’s grassy courtyard. Many dressed in suit jackets and white shirts; others sported plaid short-sleeve button-downs. There were no flip-flops or hoodies in sight. In the back rows, segregated from the men by a line of empty chairs, a few women–students at Kabul University–looked on.

Hakim Ahmadi ran the event’s slides from his Mac laptop. The evening’s main topic was cloud computing. But the PowerPoint presentation also included a description of ACM and a membership pitch that reminded the audience: “Learning is a serious business, invest wisely . . .”

ACM’s leaders were shocked when they first heard that Afghans wanted to open a chapter. “My initial reaction was, ‘What? This makes no sense,’ because I picture Kabul as a city under siege with incredible security issues and with all the standard things that make innovation and education difficult,” says ACM CEO John White. Yet how could ACM be anything but supportive? “It is clearly a statement about how these individuals in Afghanistan perceive themselves as professionals who really want to be connected to the global computing community.”

It was significant that a few women chose to attend the networking event: Women not only aspire to join the tech community but also are already leaders in it. In fact, the most profitable firm associated with the Herat incubator is Afghan Citadel Software, run by an effervescent 25-year-old woman named Roya Mahboob.
Mahboob started Citadel two years ago with several former classmates from Herat University’s computer-sciences department. “Software is a creative field,” she says. “We created a group called Technology Women at university, and then my friends and I created websites for faculty and other organizations just for fun.” Eventually, they realized they could make money from their hobby. Today, Citadel has 18 full-time employees, 11 of them women. Among the firm’s projects: a patient-management system created for local health facilities and a student-registration system for Afghan universities.

Afghanistan remains a patriarchal society, and Mahboob has had to overcome significant marketplace discrimination. The notion that a woman could create corporate software solutions is laughable to many potential clients; some dismiss the women outright when they arrive to pitch for business. “We tell them, ‘This is not just men’s work, and if you don’t believe us, let us do a presentation and show you our product,’” says Mahboob. Sometimes that works; often it does not.

The women’s families are often shocked by their work. Mahboob’s father has faced criticism from relatives who think it is shameful that a young woman would be out with her team, meeting clients and applying for projects. While he continues to encourage his daughter, some of her friends have not been so fortunate: Family pressure on three colleagues grew so unbearable that they left their jobs. Mahboob persuaded two of them to do what they do best–exploit technology–and work from home.

Mahboob says that she and her team aren’t just entrepreneurs; they’re seeking to be role models. “We want to show women and girls how to run a successful business and how to overcome their challenges,” she says, adding that one of her partners wants to create a women’s IT association in Afghanistan.

The not-for-profit Bpeace plans to host apprenticeships in Dubai or the U.S. for five Afghan female tech professionals in 2013. “In 2004, the only Afghan women we were working with were in handicrafts, so we have seen the evolution of women moving from production into service businesses,” says Bpeace CEO Toni Maloney. When Afghan entrepreneurs visit the U.S. now, she notes, the first thing they want to do is buy an unlocked iPhone. “The young generation coming up is computer literate. They are used to the Internet. They are used to mobile phones.”

The only certainty in Afghanistan is uncertainty. Almost no one I interviewed has a sound plan for what they would do if full-blown war were to return and extinguish the rickety normalcy upon which they have built their firms. All prefer to talk about their dreams.

Take Abdulghani Vahidi, who runs an eight-year-old company called Information and Communication Technology of Afghanistan. One of its key clients to date has been the Ministry of Education; ICTA helped computerize Afghanistan’s all-important university entrance exam. But Vahidi has even bigger hopes. “Our main idea is for e-government,” he says. “We would like to connect all government offices by Internet and help them to do their work paperlessly.”

As ambitious as taking government online may be in a country that outranks only Myanmar, North Korea, and Somalia in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Vahidi’s long-term goal is even more audacious. In time, he says, he hopes to extend his e-government business to Afghanistan’s neighbors.

Outsiders may see such dreams as fantastic. But Afghanistan’s would-be tech moguls would not be true entrepreneurs if they were stymied by fears about a future they can’t control. In Jamshid Sultanzada’s view, working to realize these dreams may even help forge the peace. “Investing in technology inside Afghanistan and focusing on business rather than war can change the whole game,” he says. “No one wants war if they have a job.”

In their commitment to keep hurdling all obstacles, these entrepreneurs are no different from their counterparts a world away in Silicon Valley. “Google is my God and code is my poetry,” says Zahedi quietly, smiling. “Web services, social networks, e-commerce–this is my dream. Maybe one day we can do it in practice.”

Read the main story in FastCompany

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