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Roya Mahboob: Bringing Freedom to Afghanistan's Entrepreneurs

The digital age is bringing creative empowerment and financial independence to women and youth in Afghanistan, priming them to become the nation's future entrepreneurs.
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In the 13th century, the Venetian merchant Marco Polo traveled the Silk Road, a trading route that connected China and Europe via Central Asia. Because branches of the Silk Road traversed what is now Afghanistan, my country became a crossroads of world trade at that time.

More than 700 years later, in 2011, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the “new Silk Road initiative,” a U.S.-led international strategy to help build overland trade in Central and South Asia. The goal was to boost economic development and social stability in our part of the world by once again establishing Afghanistan as a regional market hub. Both visions of the Silk Road focused on physical commerce. But what Marco Polo couldn’t imagine--and what Clinton apparently didn’t envision--is that the Internet can become the Digital Silk Road for the people of Central Asia.

Empowering Entrepreneurs Online

The hallmarks of entrepreneurial success in the 21st century are creative empowerment, financial independence, and the absence of geographic barriers. As a young Afghan woman who runs a successful IT business based in Herat, I have experienced this dynamic personally. I make my living from the Digital Silk Road, and I am convinced that online entrepreneurship can create a bright future for women and young people in Afghanistan and other developing countries.

Last year, I joined forces with Film Annex, an online film-distribution company headquartered in New York City. Together, the two of us created a company called Citadel of New York, which is doing its part to encourage entrepreneurship on the Digital Silk Road by bringing Internet access, IT hardware, and social-media education to tens of thousands of Afghan students. We focus on giving women and youth the tools they need to launch successful online businesses. Current U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged our work recently in his essay titled "Afghan women on the march," published on Politico.com.

To this end, our next creation was WomensAnnex.com, a blogging and film platform that empowers the women and children of Central Asia with a “pay for content” model. Bloggers and filmmakers on the site get paid a share of ad revenues based on their Buzz Score, which measures the traffic their work attracts. Monthly payouts on Women’s Annex range from as little as $5 to several thousand dollars.

Topics on Women’s Annex include education, arts, business, and sports. The platform enables women to distribute and monetize their film and written content, as well as to connect with female role models through videos and blog posts. Women's Annex encourages women all over the world to be financially independent self-starters. Members are based in many developing countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Why is the Digital Silk Road so important? One of the most difficult challenges faced by Afghan entrepreneurs is traveling through a country that is only beginning to emerge from decades of violent conflict. By opening the gates of the Internet to young Afghans, we are giving them the means to travel the entire world without leaving their homes and schools. Afghan women won’t need a male relative to escort them outside the home when they are traveling the world online. Afghan children can learn about the world without needing a passport. They can also learn how to launch and scale profitable businesses.

To be sure, Afghan entrepreneurs face many other challenges besides the danger and expense of overland travel. These include endemic violence, poverty, corruption, and government bureaucracy, all of which stifle entrepreneurship. But the Digital Silk Road is largely unaffected by these constraints. Business ideas and international partnership opportunities travel the Internet cheaply and at network speed.

Governments, the international community, and the private sector can all promote entrepreneurship in Afghanistan by helping to bring Afghans online. Improving broadband Internet connectivity for Afghans and providing the IT hardware and training to use it effectively are not expensive or difficult propositions. This is especially true when we consider that the United States alone has spent more than half a trillion dollars on the war in Afghanistan over the past 12 years.

In Afghanistan, the Digital Silk Road can promote business, markets, development, and entrepreneurship in a cost-effective way that will build on its own success. It also is an effective business model that can be applied in other developing countries in Central and South Asia and throughout the world.

It’s all about connecting people and their creative ideas. Ultimately, any business expert or entrepreneur will tell you that business is about people. This is where the Digital Silk Road can make the same kind of history that Marco Polo did.

Roya Mahboob is an Afghan entrepreneur and businesswoman. She is the founder and president of the Afghan Citadel Software Company, a full-service software-development company based in Herat, Afghanistan. Mahboob also chairs the Women’s Annex Foundation.

Last updated: Nov 27, 2013

VOICES FROM MCKINSEY & COMPANY | Columnist

In Voices, McKinsey & Company showcases expert thinking on some of the world's most pressing social problems. The latest series of Voices features on-the-ground stories of how entrepreneurs are making a societal impact across the world. Contributors range from trailblazers in fragile states to founders of multinational companies to forward-thinking millennials.

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