BARCELONA, Spain In the passionate words of Karim Kohja, CEO of Roshan, Afghanistan's leading telecom operator, the emerging nations of the world are the "wild West" of 21st-century mobile telecommunications.
In a nation that now has an adult life expectancy of only 42 years but a mobile phone penetration rate of 56 percent, Kohja cited the transformative powers of mobile communications. "We are making this technology available to all the people," said Kohja.
"We have created 20,000 jobs," he continued. "We have created the middle class of Afghanistan -- not the drug-related middle class but the real middle class."
Kohja was part of a Mobile World Congress panel here this week discussing the trials and triumphs of extending the mobile industry into the poorest and hardest-to-reach regions of the world.
As both Kohja and Iqbal Quadir, founder of GrameenPhone of Bangladesh, pointed out, a phone company in the Third World that sets out to be merely a phone company is likely doomed to failure. Kohja said he had barely hung his shingle in Afghanistan before he had to enter "- very informally "- the banking business, by carting strongboxes full of cash into outlaw-infested hinterlands. This treacherous effort laid the foundation for Roshan to establish Afghanistan's first wireless banking system -- thereby cutting the outlaws out of the loop.
Quadir's company also provides financial services, including micro-loans, in Bangladesh, as well as setting up schools and running clinics.
Roshan supports clinics as well and underwriting a pioneering telemedicine practice that allows doctors in Kabul "- who dare not venture into the countryside lest they be killed "- to treat patients remotely.
Panelist Sigve Brekke, CEO of DTAC and a hardened veteran of Third World outreach by the Norwegian mobile carrier, Telenor, insisted that such unusual and seemingly unprofitable sidetracks are the price of success in emerging nations. "You really need to think differently if you want to survive. It's necessary to be part of the economic and social development" in countries with unstable regimes, corrupt regulators and a deep distrust of foreign interference, said Brekke.
"You have to prove that you are transferring knowledge and helping the economy to grow."
The outcomes of such efforts, according to the panelists, were extraordinary improvements for people in countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Thailand, as well as profits for the telecom companies.
Kohja's said the economic potential of "connecting the unconnected" focuses on the central Afghan town of Bamiyan, one of the world's most remote and destitute outposts. Only one road leads to Bamiyan, said Kohja, and it is only open in the summer, "unless it floods." Kohja was told he was crazy to invest the $500,000 necessary to create mobile access in Bamiyan.