Young Afghan Entrepreneur Capitalizes On Opportunities

Fahim Hashemi, 33, built a conglomerate from scratch. He owns a TV channel, an airline and supplies the Afghan National Army with boots and fuel. He got his start early in the war as a translator to U.S. and British forces.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Afghanistan is in transition. Its army is supposed to take the lead in the fight against the Taliban, and election is supposed to replace President Hamid Karzai. All of that comes in 2014, setting the stage for a younger generation born and raised during decades of conflict to shape the future of their country. Some of those young people have been talking with our colleague Renee Montagne, who's in Kabul. Hi, Renee.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Hi, Steve. Morning.

INSKEEP: And I gather one of those young people is 32 now, but has already started a hugely successful group of businesses.

MONTAGNE: Steve, listen. Talk about starting a business from the ground-up. Fahim Hashimi started from a place - that would be Kabul - in ruins, and it would be hard to find anyone here who's gone as far as he has. From the beginning, Hashimi was thinking big, and he was quick to recognize and seize opportunities.

INSKEEP: Now, when you say thinking big, Renee, how big?

MONTAGNE: Oh, conglomerate big. I mean, his group of companies contracts to supply security forces with everything from boots to fuel. He does construction. He has the country's only domestic airline, which he just launched, also, a small coal mine and one of the country's most watched TV channels - which, this being Afghanistan, he started partly to give himself a platform to expose anyone asking him for bribes in his other businesses.

Today, Hashimi's businesses are worth a fortune, Steve, and he says he built them without any help from the government and aid organizations that poured into Kabul in 2001.

INSKEEP: OK. So he did all this after the Taliban government was pushed out of power at the end of 2001, then.

MONTAGNE: Exactly. He talked about that when we sat down at his TV station.

You would've been just barely out of your teenage years when September 11th happened, when the Taliban were driven out.

FAHIM HASHIMI: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes.

MONTAGNE: Really, up to that age, a part of your formative life in your late teens was under the Taliban.

HASHIMI: During Taliban, I was here. And I used to teach English, and at the same time, study medicine. I was very young, of course, and I was not able to grow a beard, and I was very much criticized for not being able to grow a beard.

MONTAGNE: Did you ever get arrested? It seems like every young man got arrested.

HASHIMI: Well, I've gotten beaten up a few times for not having a beard and...

MONTAGNE: By the Taliban.

HASHIMI: ...for having longer hair and stuff. But a bigger problem than that was the freedom, you know, of expression, of course. You couldn't even talk about that, and the freedom of doing business, the freedom of living as a citizen in Afghanistan. And for me, 9/11 was - when I heard at first, of course, it wasn't a great thing to hear, you know. But day the Taliban left, I was, like, OK.

It was like when you get out of the work, you know, didn't have to put on a hat or a turban anymore. You could watch TV. You know, I had a little TV set, Russian-made, that I had hidden under the pillows and mattresses that I took out. And I said, oh, we can watch TV now, you know. Got excited, of course. And right after that, as we saw the international community coming towards Afghanistan, and especially a lot of journalists, you know, coming in, I mean, that was a totally new world that opened to us.

And for me, as someone who lived here, I had a wooden TV set at the end of Taliban time, and now I own a TV channel. Look at how much things have changed for me.

MONTAGNE: And, looking back, Fahim Hashimi's rise is quite a story. He began by trading on his best and really only asset, the English he perfected as a boy. He got a job as a translator for the British army, and then American forces. Working for the U.S. military offered a welcome salary in American dollars, but Hashimi looked around and saw where the real money was: supplying NATO troops.

Using his family business, a pharmacy, he began bidding on contracts at a time, 2005, when the war was heating up and military contracts offered a chance to make huge profits. And in 2010, Fahim Hashimi added to his expanding conglomerate that TV channel. One TV airs Turkish dramas and Latin American telenovelas, game shows and an Afghan version of Jay Leno.

It also offers lively and often hard-hitting current affairs programs. Those can draw big audiences here in a country where more than 50 TV channels and a dozen daily newspapers thrive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Among One TV's most popular offerings is "Kabul Debate Live," a roundtable that takes on the big events of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KABULE DEBATE LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: This is one of the earliest episodes. Its guests included two of the top bank officials in the Kabul Bank scandal, what investors called a Ponzi scheme that touched the highest levels of the government and nearly brought down Afghanistan's fragile banking system.

HASHIMI: We do take it as a mission. For me, as an Afghan, if I can fight corruption - of course, I can't fight it alone. But if I can continue to fight corruption, that satisfies me. And I'm not going to call myself a hero, but that really does satisfy me, because as an Afghan, as a businessman living in Afghanistan, I can tell you how people feel, now businessmen feel.

The only thing that people are scared of, the government officials, are TV stations. And shame is a big thing for people, OK. The moment your name is on media, it's a big shame, you know. And you're done.

MONTAGNE: Well, how much of a drag is government corruption on business, especially business the size of yours? Can you run a parallel universe here of efficient and profitable big business alongside a very corrupt government?

HASHIMI: Well, I mean, a corrupt government certainly has negative effects on any business, whether it's small or big. Of course, it has more effect on the bigger businesses. You can certainly run a business parallel to a corrupt government, but what you have to be careful about is not to get involved in the corruption, and it's very, very difficult, you know.

The bottom line is corruption is the biggest problem we have. I think the corruption's not only causing negative impact on the businesses, but it also has a direct link with the insecurity. If police is corrupt, they're not going to provide a good security. If rule of law and judicial system's corrupt, they're not going to punish the criminals, you know.

So I think that media is one of the very few mechanisms that actually can fight corruption in Afghanistan. And we're proud to be a part of that.

MONTAGNE: Well, about 2014, will there be a big falling-off of business when the international - or at least the military picks up and leaves?

HASHIMI: Certainly, that does make us worried, because the amount of money coming in will reduce, of course, and the amount of business will also reduce. And business will be a bit more difficult, you know. Doing business with the U.S. military is a different thing than doing business with the Afghan government. It's much easier to deal with the U.S. government in terms of transparency, accountability.

And you can always do a lot of business with them if you're a clean and an organized company. Dealing with the Afghan government, of course, is a bit challenging, but there will still be business to do, you know.

MONTAGNE: You don't have the option to go somewhere. In other words, your commitment has to be beyond 2014.

HASHIMI: To be very honest, it's our decision. I have decided to stay, and many Afghans have decided to go. And going out of Afghanistan is not a difficult thing, you know. You can always take your money and invest it somewhere else. But I have decided - not only because of business, but also because of my own country - to stay in Afghanistan and invest in Afghanistan.

And, of course, opportunities are better in Afghanistan. Risk is very high, but the returns are good, as well. I've been saying it - and I really believe when I say it - that let's shape our own 2014, you know. Let's shape it by investing. Let's shape it by creating jobs. Let's shape it by staying in Afghanistan. Let's shape it by voting. Let's shape it by supporting a transparent election. I've been encouraging my friends, and I think there are many Afghans who are committed to stay, invest and shape the 2014 that we expect.

MONTAGNE: Fahim Hashimi, owner of One TV and other companies here in Kabul, Afghanistan. This is NPR News.

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