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Computers for the masses

Masood Momin
Meeting the growing technological needs of the Afghan population is a long-term goal for Blue Sonic, a Kabul-based company that repackages hardware produced in Silicon Valley for sale as affordable computers and…
13.08.2014  |  Kabul

Founded in Canada in 1998, the company relocated last year to owner Sayeed Hashimi’s native Afghanistan, becoming the country’s first manufacturer of electronics and digital technology. According to the company’s Marketing Manager Waheedullah Qaderi, Blue Sonic is the only company in the country that produces and packages computers with the same standards as Dell and Hewlett Packard. It is also the first company in the country licensed by Microsoft to install Windows software on its computers.

The company produces two types of desktops, six types of laptops and eight types of mobile phones. All computer parts are purchased from Intel and assembled in Afghanistan, where lower labor costs allow Blue Sonic to sell the products for lower prices. The computers come with pre-installed Dari and Pashto language packs, as well a two-year warranty and repair services. Desktop computers have built-in batteries that function for up to three hours. Currently, Blue Sonic only sells to Afghan institutions, but is negotiations with the Finance Ministry to introduce its products to the private market. 

With mobile phone usage and internet penetration rates mushrooming, Afghanistan is an attractive market for technology start-ups with international connections and local know-how. The number of internet users in the country grew to more than one million in 2012 compared to only 200,000 in 2006, according to a 2012 report by USAID.

“Computer use has increased in both the private and public sector in recent years,” says Bizhen Shams, a Kabul-based tech industry expert. “Businesses and government offices use computerized accounting systems and databases, while university students use laptops and tablets to do their assignments and to keep in touch with friends.”

Blue Sonic employs a staff of mostly Afghan employees who produce around 100 computers a day, and has expansion plans in Nangarhar, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. According to qaderi, the company has so far sold around 700 desktops and 300 laptops in total. Its clients include one ministry, a government agency, and two educational institutions.

Further expansion schemes include custom-colored laptop cases, desktop shells, and mobile casings to be produced by some 500 disabled employees. Blue Sonic also plans to translate terminology in such fields as medicine, engineering and computer science into Pashto and Dari and install them as software on Blue Sonic computers. Its software developers are also working on a local Hajj app to help users plan their pilgrimage to Mecca.

Blue Sonic’s ambitions go beyond digital technology. Currently, government investment incentives allow tech start-ups like Blue Sonic tax breaks and lower import tariffs, as well as cost-free land and power inside state-sponsored technological parks. Qaderi, who sees Blue Sonic as a major driver for economic development and job creation, suggests state support should go even further by waiving Blue Sonic’s customs tax obligation altogether. With such incentive, the company would be able to offer cheaper products and compete with foreign exporters of consumer electronics, he says.

So far, this request has fallen on deaf ears at the Ministry of Finance, which claims it cannot disrupt its trade policies by exempting Blue Sonic from widely applied tax rules. According to ministry spokesman Abdul Qader Jaylani, tax breaks are a national policy issue and cannot be given to one specific company.

This presents a significant hurdle for Blue Sonic's plans to sell its computers below international market prices. However, Qaderi says the company will pursue its retail plans regardless of the negotiations' outcome. "We could still sell our product for a dollar less than other companies on the market," he said.