69. Sanzar Kakar: Trading is key to the Afghan spirit

Sue Stockdale talks to Sanzar Kakar about his life as an entrepreneur in Afghanistan, how he measures success, and how the company pivoted to support the recent humanitarian crisis in the country.

Sanzar Kakar is the Chairman of Afghanistan Holding Group, a 13-year-old private firm with 350 Afghan team members that has served over 700 international organizations. Ventures include Moore Afghanistan (accounting and consulting), Afghanet (internet service), Mezan (school), F45 Training (fitness), BusinessDNA (media), Hesab (payments), and BBR (transport).

Sanzar graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science Engineering and from Warwick Business School with a Master’s in Business Administration. At the University of Pennsylvania, Sanzar served as the Manager of the Wharton Graduate Association. Following his undergraduate degree, he worked for Merrill Lynch as a Technology Analyst on a trading desk for bonds and equities, creating a link for automatic reporting to the New York Stock Exchange.

Staring in Afghanistan, Sanzar began working an as an Investment Associate for Acap Partners, setting up a $20 million venture capital facility and sourcing over 300 new deals for consideration. He then joined  the Attorney General’s Office of Afghanistan as an Executive Advisor on a U.S. Department of State program to reorganize the institution and set up a national paper and computer criminal case management system spanning seven-justice institutions. Later, Sanzar served as the Economic Advisor for the Afghanistan Investment Climate Facility, setting up operational and fiduciary requirements for the seven-year £30 million grant facility in Kabul, followed by a promotion to Deputy Interim Team Leader.  Mr. Kakar speaks English, Pashtu, and Dari.

Find out more about Afghanistan Holding Group at the website. https://ahg.com.af

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Key Quotes

‘I like to start new ventures and new opportunities.’

‘I think Afghans in general have an incredible entrepreneurial spirit.’

‘It is the greatest humanitarian crisis probably of our lives and anything we can do to try to address it and help people in their time of greatest need, it’s an obligation upon us.’

‘I’m very much from the technology background, and technology is a lot about scale. You can accomplish a lot of things through technology by making a bigger difference and bigger impact.’

‘I’ll be able to look back and say, I tried my best and I was able to help the most number of people. And that would be a great measure of success for us.’

‘What I learned more and more about myself is that the value of helping others.’

‘I’m a very visual person. So making charts and diagrams and try to imagine things differently, imagine things, better’.

Sanzar Kakar Transcription

Sue: hello, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to episode 69 of Access to Inspiration the show where you can get inspiration from people who may be unalike you. . We hope their stories and insights enable you to transcend day-to-day challenges and reflect on what you are capable of achieving. This episode was recorded using Squadcast the remote recording platform, which empowers podcasters by capturing high quality audio and video conversations that listeners love. We are proud that squadcast are sponsors of this podcast, and you will find them at Squadcast.fm. My guest today is Sanzar Kakar, chairman of Afghanistan holding group, a company that’s been running for 13 years and has over 350 African team members that have served over 700 international organizations. Amongst the ventures that he runs is Afghan net, which is an internet service Mezan which is a school and Hesab a payments business. Similar to PayPal. I was curious to get another perspective about Afghanistan and find out how Sanzar has pivoted the focus of his business more recently to support the humanitarian crisis. Welcome to the podcast, Sanzar great to speak to you today.

Sanzar: Thank you Sue. I’m so honored and happy to be here as well.

Sue: Now, as we’re speaking, I know you’re living and working in Afghanistan, what the weather is like at this time of the year in Afghanistan, in January?

Sanzar: It’s snowy actually. And it’s quite a cold. So a lot of people, somehow they think Afghanistan is a desert, but there are deserts in the south. And then there’s forest in the north. But where I am in Kabul, it’s snowy and chilly in the winter, warm in the summer, but not too hot. It’s, it’s quite nice in the shade. So a moderate climate. The main difference is that it’s about a mile high. Kabul is like a bowl on top of a mountain. And so you’re surrounded by mountains and you’re a mile above sea level. So the altitude is what makes it a quite dry.

Sue: You’ve given us a wonderful description there to get our head around what geography is like Sanzar. I know your role is chairman of Afghanistan Holding group. And you might describe yourself as an entrepreneur. Would that be correct?

Sanzar: that is correct. I like to start new ventures and new opportunities. And so Afghanistan Holding group is a group of those ventures, that that’s exactly what it is. New ideas, new startups, new businesses and almost exclusively all in Afghanistan.

Sue: Now, I don’t know if you would agree with me. Sometimes other entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to over the years where they have a number of ventures is a little bit like having children. And there’s sometimes a favorite. I’m wondering if that’s the case for you.

Sanzar: it’s hard to say. I mean, I’ve five children, so it’s hard to say a favourite even amongst my own children. But amongst my businesses. There’s 10 of them And there’s some that I do enjoy much more than others. I think that is fair to say. One of them is called F45 training, which is a gym from Australia. Mark Walberg is a co-investor in those gyms and in Afghanistan is just so much fun to do that. And people really enjoyed it to something completely different. And so I would probably say F45 is definitely one of my favourites.

Sue: And what are the others, or just give us a flavour of some of those other business ventures that you’re involved in Sanzar?

Sanzar: Sure. So one of them is a school from, from K to 12, it’s called Mizan. And we help try to train the future leaders of the country. So it’s a small school. But we have an incredible curriculum out of Oak Meadows in Connecticut from the US and we’ve customized it for Afghanistan, local languages and culture as well as of course, English and a US side to it. We also have Afghan Net which is the internet service provider providing just broadband internet to homes and businesses across Afghanistan.. Actually a few tech ones, you know, my background is computer engineering. So we have a Uber service called Buber which, which means, ‘ let’s go’ in Farsi and you can order food like Uber eats, or you can order a taxi or a package to be delivered through Buber. And then the one that we’re spending most of our time on now is called Hesab – think of it like Apple Pay, where you can send money, pay in any shop, send money to anyone else and try to make it really easy for payments given the fact that the in a banking sector has collapsed in the last five months.

Sue: Well, it sounds like there’s a real variety of ventures that you’re involved in. Where do you think you get that entrepreneurial spirit from?

Sanzar: I think Afghans in general have, an incredible entrepreneurial spirit in my entire life. When I’ve been in Afghanistan, they’ve come up with any little thing, even if they didn’t have a lot of capital to try to, do a business And earn a living. If you’d go to the markets, they would always be someone that would, , rent a wheelbarrow so that he could spend the day wheeling groceries for people around in the busy markets. Or , just come up with some really incredible creative ideas to life. So I definitely think it’s in the Afghan spirit. The word trader or trading in Afghanistan is the same word for business. So you have to trade in a buy low and sell high Afghanistan’s always been the silk road between the east and west. And so trading is also really key to the Afghan spirit. But aside from that I think my background has also very much been in the private sector. I worked in venture capital and worked for Merrill Lynch in New York. And all of it was very much growing the private sector. And that’s what I enjoyed doing. , creating things myself and, watching them grow and bloom in the future.

Sue: And where are you originally from Afghanistan? Sanzar were you born there?

Sanzar: I’m half and half. So my mother is American from Iowa, Kansas, and my father is from Faria in the north of Afghanistan. I was born in Seattle. When they were studying medicine and there my father is a epidemiologist and my mother is a MD and PhD in public health. But when I was about five years old in Seattle, we moved back to Afghanistan.. Actually on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan in Peshawar, and that’s when the Soviets were still in Afghanistan and there was a big rush of refugees from Afghanistan out of the country. And so my parents were, were helping with those refugees tending to a lot of the war victims working either in education or in health there and so that’s, when we went back. A lot of people were leaving the country and I call it a reverse migration. We moved back to to the area of the country. And so as much as possible to help the people, in their time of need.

Sue: So you were there on the ground as a youngster and with your parents being healthcare and medicine, I’m wondering whether they were not encouraging you to go down that route as opposed to being an entrepreneur.

Sanzar: Oh, yes. Afghans strongly encourage, their kids to be doctors. And they definitely looked at it that way as well for me, so when I was studying computers or statistics, they’re like, health statistics is also a great field or management. Like, healthcare management is also a great field you should consider. But my younger sister, she did go into medicine. And so I think they appreciated that, but they also, I think now appreciate the work that I do as well.

Sue: Well, it sounds like you’re influencing the economy and in many different ways through all these different businesses that you’re running Sanzar. I also know as a student that you participated in and modelled a United Nations conference, is that right?

Sanzar: yes. I really enjoyed that both through high school and in college, I attended, dozens of model UN conferences where I worked on, debating world issues, but in a kind of an academic and that’s really what helped broaden my horizon. So if anyone has kids or they themselves are in the age where they can attend MUN, it was really didactic for me. Just to be able to not only meet so many people from so many cultures, but to start thinking about some of the greater issues in the world and what we could do to make a difference for them. So from Beijing to the Hague to Egypt. And we went all over the world, Germany, all across the US, many different states for these conferences and events. And so just, travel has a big impact on that, especially when you’re young to broaden your horizons. But I enjoyed speaking and debating and meeting people, over the years through MUN.

Sue: The United Nations then has come back into your life more recently, I understand part of what you’ve been involved in was distributing emergency aid for the United nations.

Sanzar: Yes. So after August, when the, government changed in Afghanistan we closed a lot of our different operations that, weren’t as relevant. But the critical need was very apparent. And that was when the UN announced that, 22.8 million Afghans might be facing starvation this winter, including a million children might die just out of hunger and malnutrition. And so we really changed focus and we have 350 employees in the country. And we just said, the greatest humanitarian crisis probably of our lives and anything we can do to try to address it and help people in their time of greatest need. It’s an obligation upon us. And so we focused on Hesab and tried to say here’s a way that we can deliver aid immediately transparently around the country. And UN, really, mobilized their resources there’s 35 different UN programs from WFP world food program to WHO in the world health organization for doctors and then UNICEF with teachers and on and on and on just to try to step in to avert this incredible calamity. And we’re working very closely with the UN to try to help people during this time.

Sue: And when you’re able to support and help the local economy, how do you measure your own success Sanzar?

Sanzar: I think the greatest way is to say how many people I helped. I think I’m going to look back in my life to say, all right, did I help as many people as I could that’s my measure of success. Financially I’ve been comfortable my whole life and I’ve never worried about putting a roof over my head or, what type of car to drive. That’s all been very unimportant and not something you can carry with you and after we go to the grave, we’re all gonna die. And so I’m, I am very focused on the number of people that we can try to help. And how much of a difference we can make in people’s lives.

And so I’m very much from the technology background and technology is a lot about scale. You can accomplish a lot of things through technology by making a bigger difference and bigger impact as opposed to meeting one person at a time. So when my parents were doctors, my mother originally, she went into just a regular kind of clinic. Where you’re helping one person at a time. And she said, it’s so frustrating. You’re telling one person at time please stop smoking. Cause we’re gonna get cancer and it’s going to, hurt you and it’s not good for you. And you’re trying to explain to one person at a time, but when you go to public health, you’re trying to help an entire country stop smoking and you make a much bigger difference, much impact. So those are the types of things that I heard, growing up as a child. And even now, I’m trying to think, okay. If we help a few families, that’s one thing we’ll be great. I’m employing, 350. And that’s making a difference in their lives in Afghanistan, but instead of, a few hundred or a few thousand, can I make a difference in the lives of millions?

And that’s I think where technology has, has been very, very helpful where, there’s 27 million phones in Afghanistan, we can have them, self register and distribute aid, through their cell phone to them instantly or that it can go to. a shop to buy food, to survive. So leveraging, financial technology or FinTech in Afghanistan or other countries that that might need that I think is going to be the biggest difference. And that’s where I’ll be able to look back and say, Hey I tried my best and I was able to help the most number of people. And that would be a great measure of success for myself.

Sue: When you’re talking about mobile technology, you reminded me of, the technology EMPESA that really made a huge impact in Africa in terms of bringing payments to people in remote places. It’s sounding like it’s a similar sort of concept that you’re talking about.

Sanzar: Yes, you’re exactly right. And that’s that’s what it is. Mobile money. And there’s many of them all over the world from Zelle and PayPal and pay TM in India. Yeah. Empesa, easy pay. There’s many ones around the world, but Afghanistan had a few before, but it didn’t really take off because there were restricted to the cell phone network of that particular provider. So if you wanted to, send money, everyone else had to have the same SIM card from that cell phone network. And there’s five different networks in Afghanistan. Some networks work better in some areas than others. And so that was one of the restrictions. Another one was that it didn’t have a very easy graphical interface. So a lot of Afghans believe it or not have smartphones, they use WhatsApp quite a bit, even if they’re illiterate, they use the voice messages to send voice messages back and forth. And so. Being able to have a very easy graphical interface, with icons to be able to, send funds as opposed to trying to type out a message in the right correspondence and trying to, what’s my balance. Who do I send it to? I want to make bill payments. I want to do all these other functionalities it’s very helpful, but still for people without a smartphone or even people without a phone at all, we issue QR code cards, which is a small PVC card like a credit card, but it has a picture of a QR code on it. And so when you go to a shop, the shopkeeper, then they all have smartphones. They would take a picture of that, scan that QR code and they’d be able to, make a payment that way. So very, very similar and the impact on the economy on on people on the unbanked population, financial inclusion is just phenomenal, phenomenal.

It really opens the door for micro finance. For connecting you to the economy or being able to grow businesses, to access more customers in terms of, sources of revenue to be able to access more suppliers, how to pay them. So it’s really a transformational technology and and now with the, increasing connectivity, Afghanistan’s, double digit increase every year in terms of the number of internet users. And so being able to use that and leverage. To help bring out people from poverty, I think would be tremendous. And that’s, really what’s Afghanistan is facing right now. 98% of the country is going to be below the poverty line of this year, which is phenomenal, 98% of the population, four out of five people that they have. They’ve had to resort to emergency kind of, sell offs. If their only source of income was selling milk from a cow, they’ve had to sell the cow. So now, they, they were able to, to feed themselves for maybe a month, but now they don’t have a cow to provide milk, to go on. So those sorts of emergency kind of, last resort, you’ve probably even heard in the news, people are selling their children, they’re selling their kidneys, they’re selling, whatever they can, just for a bit of food, to live another day. So these types of, terrible situations just make the need all the more urgent for action.

Sue: If you are enjoying this episode, you might want to listen to episode 48 as well where I spoke to Palwasha Siddiqi who was a refugee from Afghanistan and is a successful corporate executive and coach in the UK. You can find that over at accesstoinspiration.org and you can listen there or read all the transcriptions from all of our episodes. Now, back to the podcast. It strikes me Sanzar as you’re speaking that anybody could potentially look at the world a bit more bleakly when Afghanistan is facing such dire situations economically. And you seem to be very upbeat and optimistic. What helps to keep you optimistic despite seeing a lot of challenges around you?

Sanzar: I think it’s, it’s probably a faith. I’ve been raised with a strong faith in God and and that really makes a big difference. If you don’t have faith, I can just imagine the world looks so bleak. Like you said, that you know that there’s no meaning there’s no purpose. And , just things get worse than worse. And there’s a poem that I learned a while ago from Robert Frost. And it’s four lines and he says, I turned to speak to God about the world’s despair, but to make bad matters worse, I found out God, wasn’t there. God turned to speak to me, don’t anybody laugh, but God found I wasn’t there, at least not over half.

That’s what Robert Frost said. And that really has made an impact on me to think about how to think about things. Not blaming others or looking outwards about what’s going on. That’s, God’s world and he’ll do with it what he pleases, but for us to think about how we can make a difference. And if we’re presented with a challenge, how to respond to that challenge, and if we’re presented with, the calamities in this world, did we step up to the plate or not.

Sue: So in those difficult times, and when perhaps we do challenge or question our belief in what’s happening out there, we all have to turn to a bit of inspiration, which is the whole point of this podcast Sanzar. So I’m wondering who or what inspires you?

Sanzar: there’s a wonderful teacher, professor. His name is Hamza Yusuf and he lives in California and he’s started Zaytuna college in California on a UC Berkeley’s campus. And he’s just one of the most inspiring optimistic people that I’ve ever met. Every minute speaking to him, learning from him has been, incredibly inspirational and I’ve probably, listened to every single of his lectures on YouTube or tried to listen to every time he speaks and that is where I’ve really found a lot of inspiration. And, I look up to him and admire him for his confidence for his courage, for his sincerity and just an incredible ocean of knowledge about, every subject in the world. And, and that has really been helpful, inspirational, motivating for me. And there’s no doubt in my mind, when he speaks to you that he speaks directly from the heart he has a book called purification of the heart. And that really also made a big difference to me. And there’s an audio file about it as well, where you can listen to it, it’s also been translated in other languages in Farsi for Afghanistan as well. And So Purification of the Heart to see, to look down deep, reflect into ourselves, to see, what are what are our own ailments. And if we can continue to work on ourselves that will make a bigger difference in how we respond to other people. So I look to him for inspiration.

Sue: So when you look inside yourself, what are you learning about you as you’ve gone through life so far, doing all of these entrepreneurial activities making a difference in your economy and community.

Sanzar: Well, I definitely learn that there’s positive and negative attributes and it’s important to continually, strengthen those positive attributes and try to snuff out the negative attributes. So what I learned more and more about myself is that the value of helping others, the value of family is going to be very, very important. The more I can spend time with my own children, the more I can spend time helping them nurturing them to be leaders that is important. Serving my parents incredibly important. That’s what makes a difference to me. That’s what truly makes me happy, but it also makes them happy. And so these, these few items. Raising good kids, serving parents, my parents live with me and I’m so happy and honoured to, to be blessed with their presence. And it’s great for my kids as well, because they learned from their grandparents and my parents in their old age, they have great entertainment with my kids.

Sue: Well, they do say that that it’s one of the best ways for older people to live for longer when they have that inspiration from younger people. Just looking ahead as you then plan your next few years in addition to supporting your family and those around you. What does your entrepreneurial brain look at on the horizon and think, oh, I could get into that business or I could start up something there. Cause I know entrepreneurs always are looking for the next opportunity.

Sanzar: yes. Businesses have a certain kind of lifecycle, certain progression. I might be great at starting a business, but I don’t know once it comes to kind of a corporate level it needs a different type of a character where, you have the patience and, you do need certain, bureaucracy in order to have that large kind of corporate mechanisms, to move about. So I get much more excited, for starting new ventures and I always do look around I spend a lot of time in Istanbul, in Turkey as well. And there wasn’t a Mexican food restaurant in the entire city of 30 million people and so I’m like, I would love to start just a small taco stand, something like that. Or when I was in different parts of Afghanistan, a lot of the things that I started with things that I wanted myself. I wanted a great gym and I didn’t have one. So I started F45 or, I wanted, fast broadband internet. And so I started my own internet company or I want, for example, right now to be able to visit around the country thankfully there’s less. war in Afghanistan right now, and it’s quite safe.

Many of our employees are going to distant provinces that they never seen before in Afghanistan. And so to have, great tour operator or, a great way to be able to explore the countryside and visit different places from Banja to Badakshan to see, incredible ancient history that’s there as well as, ski the slopes or do different options. So you’re exactly right. Every day is another opportunity to see, where we can start something new and something exciting. But as of right now, I’ve really committed all my efforts on this, on this humanitarian air crisis and so I’ve tried to freeze all my brainstorms or ideas or, gut impulses to try to start something new and try to just, redirect all of our energies to this one problem.

Sue: That must be quite difficult to, to hold in check, your unbound-less enthusiasm for new things. I know one of our earlier guests in the podcast said that he is a relentless idea generator and he just had a huge notebook full of ideas. And that was the way that he captured his, his enthusiasm in one place without feeling the need to act on every idea that came up. I get a sense, perhaps a little bit like that for you.

Sanzar: Yes, definitely. And I like to write them down. I like to draw them out. I’m a very visual person. So making charts and diagrams and, try to imagine things differently, imagine things, better. And there, but there are ways to, to kind of combine many different visions, together more and more, I’m actually interested to farming now and try sustainable growth in that sense.

And so I did buy a farm in, in Kabul. Both my mother’s side of the family and my father’s side of the company. Farmers and agrarian, my mother in the U S and my father and far up. And so even from a young age, when I visited in agriculture, I really, really enjoyed it. Not livestock as much, but much more in terms of how to grow especially sustainably and how incredible it was that, a single farmer can feed thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people through what they do, which is really inspiring as well. That that much good comes from one person.

Sue: Often other entrepreneurs, I’ve spoken to talk about the need for collaboration. So having partners that they’re working with investors, how do you find going from the idea to getting going. Do you find you have collaborators and other people that you’re engaging with around you?

Sanzar: Yes. I’ve been blessed with incredible team in Afghanistan. Each one of them brilliant and hardworking to be able to turn what my one idea might be and put it into practice. And so over the over the past 13 years especially we’ve had some of the same individuals that have been with us from start to finish. And those individuals are really what would make the difference. And so spending the most time with them to make sure that they’re encouraged and motivated and inspired, it is really important.

 I like to think of factories, they might have machines, that move them forward and you have to invest in machines. But everything that I do is services. And so all the investment is in is in people. And so the more I can do and grow and help and educate and support all of our team members that’s that’s what makes the difference between us and maybe any other organization so we have all kinds of fun team meetings. We used to do bowling together in Afghanistan. We’ll take the whole team for a group bowling event or we’ve been on a team trips to Dubai or to Saudi Arabia together, many times we’re planning team events constantly to try to build that camaraderie and learning experience across each other.

Sue: So finally Sanzar you mentioned you had five children as you look ahead. What are your hopes for your children when they are growing up and looking at you as an inspiration? What are your hopes for them in the future?

Sanzar: My gut feeling was that, oh yeah, I’d love for them to run some of our businesses and as they, they grow up. But at the same time as well, I want them to find, what motivates them? What inspires them? What is what’s going on? You know help them understand what difference they can make in this world. And I don’t want to corner them into one particular area or field that I might’ve found particularly interesting. Maybe I wasn’t interested in healthcare as much growing up, so I wouldn’t want them to, to feel the same way. But I would want them definitely to know that the reason that they’re here is to make a difference. It’s not just, for fun and games and and to go about it.

Sue: That’s wonderful. And I think what you’ve given us a sense of is your strength of character, your strength of your optimism and the strength of your entrepreneurial focus Sanzar in the conversation today. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, learning more about the economics of Afghanistan in terms of all of this activities that you’re involved in and the way that you’re inspiring your family and your children as well. If people want to find out more about you and the businesses that you’re involved in, how might they do that?

Sanzar: So the group of our ventures comes under Afghanistan Holding group. So they could go to Afghanistan Holding Group.af, and then that. You know, all the different ventures that are there. Thank you for your time as well, Sue. I really appreciate it. And I look forward to being in touch.

Sue: I hope you enjoyed my conversation, with Sanzar, I certainly got a different perspective on how an entrepreneur can develop businesses in Afghanistan and support the local community. Remember, you can help us to spread awareness about this podcast with other people. So who do you know that needs a little bit of inspiration then go on send them a link to this episode or one of our other ones, or leave us a review on apple podcasts so that others can know the value that you’ve gained from listening to this. Next time I’ll be talking to Sophie Dow I hope you will join me then.

Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)

Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)