Afghan entrepreneur & philanthropist, CEO of Digital Citizen Fund
Roya Mahboub has a D.Sc. Honorary Doctor of Science of Engineering from McMaster University, and she is a Fellow of Executive Education from Stanford University. Roya is a serial entrepreneur and one of the first female CEOs in her home country, Afghanistan. She is a CEO of the Digital Citizen Fund that focuses on digital literacy to bridge the gap between education and the job markets, and a founding leader of The NewNow, a group of rising global leaders tackling global challenges. Roya is also the founder and coach of the world-renowned Afghan Girls Robotics Team. Roya has received several awards including Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2013, the 2014 Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award, The 2015 Advancement of Gender Equality through Education Award, Young Leader of World Economic Forum, 2018 Wonder Women 2018, and 2019 Education Award Winner, and the prestigious Presidential Leadership Scholarship.
Testimonial of Roya Mahboub:
In 2013, I founded Women’s Annex, a digital platform that allowed women in Afghanistan to earn money by publishing their content. However, the platform faced challenges due to the inability to pay women-contributors directly, as many lacked bank accounts and money had to be deposited into the account of a male relative. A man – that male relative – could easily take the money for himself and nothing could be done about it.
At first, we paid Women’s Annex’s employees and contributors in cash. The problem was that the women wanted to send the money to family and pay vendors in different parts of the country. They used the hawala system, an 8th-century money transfer process that relied on brokers and a web of trusted intermediaries. This ancient platform was dated, slow, and reliable for women, many of whom already had Nokia cellphones and had started to create and use their own Facebook accounts. Sometimes the money did not make it through the hawala system, and it was hard to verify that the whole amount reached the recipient. So, I researched the idea of mobile money. As it turned out, cellphone-based payment systems like M-PESA, which worked so well in Kenya, never took off in Afghanistan. PayPal was still not available because of U.S. sanctions.
To overcome this obstacle, my team implemented a crypto payment system using Bitcoin and stablecoins, which allowed our women to receive payments directly to their digital wallets, without interference from male relatives. Bitcoin and stablecoins allowed the organization to overcome physical and social obstacles in paying Afghan women. With a simple transaction, Bitcoin and stablecoins could instantly appear in a woman’s digital wallet, without interference from men.
Later, with my Digital Citizen Fund, I began to increase Afghan women’s technological and financial literacy, particularly with the use of crypto assets such as Bitcoin and stablecoins to enable financial inclusion and privacy. My team has trained over 17,000 young women in coding, digital skills, and entrepreneurship, and has built dozens of internet classrooms and mobile computer labs across Afghanistan. We tried to develop practical skills and foster self-reliance among women, breaking down traditional cultural barriers that limit them to domestic duties.
Since August 2021, bank and wire services like Western Union, MoneyGram have run out of paper currency and have cut off services, leaving one-third of Afghans struggling with food insecurity and 50-70% with unstable housing situations. Websites like GoFundMe have been blocked from fundraising efforts for “compliance” reasons. Bitcoin and stablecoins have provided a crucial financial lifeline for many during these difficult times, who stay in the country and continue working behind closed doors. So, while the Taliban could crush local businesses or shut down financial modernization plans, they cannot stop Bitcoin. My team in the US continues helping many young women — including some of the stars of Afghanistan’s female youth robotics team Afghan Girls Robotics Team that have not left Afghanistan.