Afghanistan Eyes Digital Leap by Modernizing Traditional ‘Pay and Pray’ System

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In the untamed locales of Afghanistan, where streets and houses lack names and numbers, finding a way for utility companies to connect with their customers necessitates a touch of creativity. Utilizing mosques as intermediaries, bills and cash are exchanged live and local, a system fondly dubbed as ‘pay and pray’.

Plans are afoot to spruce up and modernize this unique method as the national postal service envisions an ambitious drive: sprinkling mailboxes on every street corner throughout the country. A tantalizing challenge in a nation stymied by bureaucracy and the tumultuous tides of war.

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The immense roadmap spans the digitization of Afghanistan, covering numerous facets, such as access to e-commerce for shopping and issuing debit cards for online transactions. This envisions quite a leap for a majority population that remains unbanked, for an air cargo industry still toddling and in a landscape where international courier companies eschew even the capital Kabul.

This radical shift portends a hike in service fees for the Afghan populace, a significant hurdle considering more than half the population leans on humanitarian aid for survival.

Echoing the realities of life in Afghanistan, Afghan Post, like much of the country, still clings to tangible paper for transactions. Zabihullah Omar, Director of Business Development for Afghan Post, laments, “Nobody uses email”. He perhaps poignantly encapsulates the situation quoting, “Afghanistan is a member of the Universal Postal Union, but when we compare ourselves to other countries, it is at a low level and in the early stages.”

The postal service remains integral to quotidian administrative tasks. It facilitates obtaining essential legal certifications such as passports or driver’s licenses, and even hosts to the dispatching up to 15,000 passports on a daily basis.

The post offices further cater to a much-neglected demographic. They provide women the access to crucial services or products they would otherwise be denied, as they are often barred from entering ministries or other official premises.

Undeniably, there’s a dark specter that hovers over the Afghan Post – that of the Taliban’s idiosyncratic edicts targeting women and girls. The diktat casts its shadow at the entrance of the main Kabul branch where signboards exhort women to don the Islamic headscarf correctly. The visual aids earmark approved and disapproved styles – a sign of the overarching stricture that women in Afghanistan grapple with.

Anecdotal accounts reveal mixed experiences customers have navigating this complex overlay of stalwart tradition and the modern postal service’s ambitions. Arzo, a medical graduate, was redirected here when the Education Ministry shut its door. Her motives were clear – to certify her documents, a measure borne out of the uncertain socio-economic status.

In contrast, Alam Noori came away pleased, hailing the collection of his passport as a “piece of cake.” He discovered the postal office via social media, and believes that its benefits could be more widespread if awareness could be raised in the villages and districts.

Omar harbors ambitions for more customer-centric postal services while understanding the uphill task it represents – the transformation of the way people interact with public service agencies.

Mailboxes on every street, therefore, assume prime importance. They would serve as nodes for bill payments, mail dispatches, and document processing. What is also vanishing in the landscape are hand-written letters – a trend seen worldwide.

Hamid Khan Hussain Khel, one of the country’s 400 postmen, navigates Kabul’s teeming population of five million without having yet to deliver a personal letter. Despite the obvious challenges, he derives joy from his job, reveling in the satisfaction of a job well done, and in the gratifying smiles of his customers.