May 4, 2017

If you need to know the age of the average African or Asian television viewer, then ask Saad Mohseni.

If it is between 15 and 25, the Afghan chief executive of the Dubai-based Moby Group will probably know.

Engaging the region’s youth bulge has become paramount for governments, broadcasters and advertising agencies alike.

While they all seek to win the hearts and minds of elusive millennials, Mr Mohseni will settle for their devices.

Often described as Afghanistan’s first media mogul, he now lives in Dubai and runs Moby Group, the largest media company in Afghanistan, from an understated building on the outskirts of the city. There is not a luvvie in sight.

The only obvious trappings of the media business are four large TV screens in his office displaying shows from some of his networks from the frontier lands of modern media.

In an industry that has many minor media moguls seeking to appear major, Mr Mohseni is more of a media major who would prefer to appear minor.

A little more than a decade after establishing a small radio station in Kabul, Moby Group has become a US$100 million-turnover business that employs 1,200 people with Rupert Murdoch as an investor.

One reason why the Australian media tycoon bought in is the group’s exposure to some of the world’s most youthful media markets from sub-Saharan African, through the Middle East and into Asia.

Global media organisations are investing heavily in platforms they believe will give them best access to the elusive millennial demographic, the generation born between 1982 and 2004.

But it is telling the story in the right way rather than on the right platform that is key to making a connection, he believes.

He describes himself as a "platform agnostic".


At a glance

What: Afghan media group sees new opportunities for growth.

Why: As regional aspirations grow, Moby’s home market plus those in India, Pakistan and elsewhere, are developing fast.


"It’s a very distracting world," he says. "So in order to get to people, you have to be very flexible in the way you cut your different pieces of content.

"It has almost become irrelevant how you deliver your content," he says. "It could be via mobile, social media or it could be on a linear network – you just have to find a way of telling that story in different ways in order for it to resonate with different target groups."

Establishing a media group in the literal and metaphoric minefield that is Afghanistan has also won him admirers in the industry – including Shane Smith, the founder of Vice News, who describes him as a "rare media hero" for helping to transform society through programming from homegrown news documentaries to reality shows such as Voice of Afghanistan.

"There’s a fine line between facilitating social change and dictating social change," says Mr Mohseni. "You have to do it in a very subtle way and we have made a lot of mistakes along the way but I think we have an obligation. Our instincts tell us these are things we should push – whether it’s women’s rights, or rights for minorities."

Much of Moby’s programming in Afghanistan is about creating role models, sporting and soap opera heroes and heroines. It brought the US show Sesame Street to the country, which turned out to be popular among adults as well as kids.

But in Afghanistan even Big Bird can be a dangerous business.

"When we first went back, people had not watched television for five years. There was a whole generation of Afghans who had never been exposed to television.

"If you look at Afghanistan today, people are very aspirational despite the civil war and the bombs going off. In a lot of ways their expectations are totally different from their parents 15 or 16 years ago."

In a country where the Taliban once announced their arrival in a town by hanging television sets from the nearest tree, Moby employees have been actively targeted by militants.

Last year a Taliban suicide attacker drove a car bomb into a minibus carrying staff from Tolo TV, Moby’s television network in the country. Several employees were killed or wounded in the blast.

Did that tragedy change his relationship with the country or his attitude to his own security?

"Yes and no," he says.

"We’ve seen a lot of death. A couple of years ago I counted the number of close friends we had lost over the years and it was up to 45 – people we considered good friends, not just acquaintances. So death and loss is something very real in Afghanistan and, don’t forget, it goes back 30 years."

Still, the bus attack was different, he says, in a place where many are forced to live their lives in silos that separate home and work routines from the pervasive threat of random terror.

"It hits home. Some of these kids had worked for us for a decade. Many of them were breadwinners for their families. When you are the actual target it makes you think about things in a different way."

He only expected to see a handful of employees in the Kabul office the day after the attack when staff were given the day off.

"But we had 500 people turn up," he says. "It was quite extraordinary that these people continued to do their job, We had three days of mourning and then we moved on."

Working in Afghanistan has given his team a certain resilience which would be uncommon in more developed markets.

He jokes that they are like the special forces of the media business – as adept at rigging up a broadcast aerial or generator set as editing some b-roll alternative footage.

"They have worked in every environment and they’re tough. We can go anywhere and we know what we need to do in terms of infrastructure, electricity outages, or dealing with a lack of technical expertise."

It is a valuable skill set as Moby Group quietly expands across the region’s neglected, dangerous and ignored media markets.

Advances in technology adoption and crucially, the increasing affordability of data, is rapidly changing the economics of the business and making such markets suddenly very much more interesting for broadcasters and advertisers.

Nowhere is this transformation more obvious than India, where there are about 300 million smartphones across a population of 1.3 billion.

But while the average Indian spends about $3 on their mobile bill, up until last year the cost of downloading data per hour was about $1 – which made viewing even the shortest of video clips outside a Wi-Fi network prohibitively expensive for most.

That all changed when India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, started to offer data for free through his Jio telecoms unit. It generated 100 million subscribers in just six months.

Now the cost of data has fallen to the equivalent of about 15 cents a day.

"It has changed everything," says Mr Mohseni. "And when 5G comes it will change dramatically and that change will be experienced at the same time by the people in India as in the US."

The narrowing gap between the developed and developing world in terms of media consumption, smartphone availability and bandwidth speed represents a major opportunity for Moby Group and explains its targeting of such unloved media markets.

"How do you mitigate risk? You have to be diversified, so we have to be in as many places as possible," Mr Mohseni says.

"Today what we are seeing in India is what we are going to be seeing in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the GCC."

Even with a slow connection, people will be able to start downloading video content in places where until now that has been either financially or technically unviable.

It means that those youthful consumers so coveted by the advertising industry in the region’s forgotten media markets will suddenly be tantalisingly within range.

"The game is changing," Mr Mohseni says.

And when it does, Moby will be waiting.