I grew up in Afghanistan, and I remember the early 1990s and 2000s, when it was very difficult for people to reach one another by phone. Not everyone had access to analog phones. When people wanted to communicate, most had to travel — often long distances — to meet in person.
Communication outside the country was even harder. We could only send a letter and wait for a response. This was even more problematic during the Taliban regime, when such systems were not functioning properly.
But my country is a phenomenal place to apply new technologies, and the Afghan people love to use them. The first telecommunications company was established in 2002, after the fall of the Taliban. From that point, mobile technologies took off. Today, five companies offer mobile services to more than 18 million subscribers. It’s now quite common to see young people chatting and surfing the Web on their phones.
“Internet on my phone has helped me to stay connected with friends,” one university student told me, adding, “It has given me the ability to get daily news updates from all around the world.”
With USAID’s support, Afghanistan’s telecommunication sector is also connecting people with mobile money products. In 2008, Roshan Telecommunication began offering M-Paisa, a digital “wallet” people can use for banking. Users set up M-Paisa accounts through a certified mobile money agent and load cash to their mobile wallets, which they can then transfer to other M-Paisa accounts. The recipients can keep the funds in their M-Paisa accounts or go to an agent to convert them to cash.
My friend Omar, who has a store in Kabul, uses M-Paisa for most of his transactions. He orders products from other companies with a phone call and pays the invoices using M-Paisa. Payment takes only a minute, and costs him very little.
“It’s worth it,” he says. “It helps me do my daily business better and I feel much more secure.” Using mobile money means he doesn’t have to carry large amounts of cash.
In remote areas, some members of the Afghan National Police are paid via mobile money. This system helps make sure they receive their full salaries on time. The first time they received their paychecks this way, their salaries seemed 30 percent higher, because they had finally received their full salaries. Mobile money had helped stop corruption along the chain.
More recently, the Afghan utility company Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat launched a product that lets consumers pay electricity bills using their mobile phones. This change will make a huge difference, because people won’t have to wait in long queues to pay their bills.
“More than 100,000 households in Kabul City have registered to pay their electricity bills through their mobile phones,” DABS CEO Abdul Razeq Samadi said. “Now the bills are also sent to their mobiles phones via SMS, making sure that everyone gets them on time.”
A decade ago, I couldn’t have imagined that there would be so many ways to use an ordinary mobile phone, but today, most of people can access these services. I am sure the future will be bright.