Mr. Amer Sunna, the CEO of Asiacell, in an interview with Business LANDSCAPE, tells the success story of Asiacell as the first Iraqi telecommunications company. He sheds the light on the role of the telecommunications sector in our modern economy. He shares with us the challenges they encounter and how to overcome them. He also stresses the importance of the entrepreneurial scene and Asiacell’s continuous support of the startup ecosystem and the youth.
Would you walk us through the journey of Asiacell in Iraq and your success story as the first national operator?
Asiacell is the first Iraqi telecommunications company founded in 1999 by Mr. Faruk Mustafa Rasool, an Iraqi businessman and entrepreneur. One of the many things Asiacell is always proud of is being the first Iraqi telecommunications company to operate and be founded by an Iraqi person. In 2003, Asiacell was granted a two-year GSM license for the six northern provinces of Iraq. Later, this license was extended in 2005 to cover the entirety of the Iraqi Republic. In 2007, Asiacell received a 15-year license to operate all over Iraq, becoming the first GSM telecom operator with full-country coverage. In 2015, Asiacell began its 3G services. By January 2021, Asiacell marked the 4G LTE services’ launch to provide the best internet service to all of the country. Asiacell’s presence is prominent in the major cities of Iraq: Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. Aside from this, Asiacell has successfully made several international and local partnerships with many businesses and organizations. We proudly own the most extensive digital data center for our business-to-business solutions.
Consequently, today Asiacell is the only telecom network to provide coverage exceeding 99% of the Iraqi population, making its national network the most extensive among the other two mobile operators in Iraq. Asiacell is not just the first, but it is the leading telecommunication and digital service provider in Iraq, surpassing a subscriber base of 14.5 million satisfied customers. The company’s breakthrough spread brought about its continuous success, growth, and expansion. Ever since Asiacell has been taking an active role by being a socially responsible company that considers the overall society’s well-being. Asiacell has always been at the forefront of supporting the Iraqi community, especially youth. In 2019, Asiacell won the globally-recognized Stevie Award for “Excellence in Innovation in Technology Industries” at the 2019 International Business Awards in Vienna and was recognized as the best telecommunications company in corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the MENA region.
What importance does this sector play in Iraq today? And what role does Asiacell play in the telecommunications sector?
The telecommunications sector is crucial and vital in our world today, but it is even more critical for developing countries as it is considered an essential means of economic growth. Several reports and data analyses found a direct correlation between GDP growth and telecommunication. Investing in the telecommunications sector is an investment in the infrastructure of the country overall.
The telecommunications investment generates growth due to a few simple factors: reduced cost of interactions, expanded market boundaries, and enormously expanded information flow. Modern management and business structure heavily rely on the network and connections made available through the telecommunication sector. Therefore, the existence of robust telecommunications and technology sectors for Iraq means an opportunity to accelerate the slow economy and sustain economic growth for Iraq that is going through the direction of a developing country.
The importance of Asiacell lies in several areas in this sector as the first mobile telecommunication operator in Iraq with the most extensive national network coverage and content that reaches more than 99%; hence, Asiacell provides its services to the largest segment of the Iraqi population. Alongside, Asiacell has the most extensive digital data center for our business-to-business solutions. It is also worth mentioning that Asiacell is the only operator in Iraq with four advanced Tier 3 Data centers. We have been the market leader in Mobile Financial Services (MFS) and cybersecurity services. Hence, our most recent partnership with Kaspersky, the global cybersecurity company, ensures the best cybersecurity solutions for our customers. We have created a thriving network of connections with several partners outside and inside Iraq, such as Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson. Asiacell is always at the forefront of introducing the latest technologies to implement them in the Iraqi market. Moreover, Asiacell is supportive of the entrepreneurial scene in Iraq and the youth, and we will further get into details about this.
What are the most prominent challenges that you encounter in the telecommunications sector? Any that are specific to the Iraqi market?
There are challenges in every industry, and they increase when you work in a vulnerable market and a developing country such as Iraq. Here at Asiacell, we view these hurdles as a means of development and a motive to perform better. The main challenge is that the customers always expect the best from us as the leading and first telecommunication network operator in Iraq. Another major obstacle we face is the weak telecommunication infrastructure (fiber network) in Iraq that we strictly abide by governmental regulations. Operating in a post-conflict country where political and economic instability prevails, we encounter many challenges as a private sector company that vary from counter-terrorist wars to recessions and financial difficulties. All the latter affects the work environment, the community, and the organization’s performance in general.
What can be done to overcome these challenges? And who are the entities and stakeholders that could contribute to the solutions?
The steps that can be done to overcome these challenges lay in creating stronger connections between the telecommunications sector, Communication & Media Commission (CMC), and other government entities. They contribute largely to our success in implementing future developments in the infrastructure of telecommunications in Iraq. In addition, the commitment from Asiacell’s employees and partners to always provide the highest quality and the best services to their customers is significant in overcoming these obstacles. Furthermore, strengthening the economy, training the youth, investing in entrepreneurship, and supporting as many business startups as possible will positively contribute to the solutions. Another critical solution is bringing foreign direct investment to Iraq and creating work opportunities in the market for the Iraqi community.
Why is Iraq still lagging when it comes to introducing the 4th generation of mobile phone technology? And how does this affect the telecommunication sector in general?
Asiacell launched the 4G LTE trial services on the 27th of January and was the first Iraqi operator to launch the 4G service, we have been getting positive feedback ever since. Asiacell and the rest of the telecommunications companies were abiding by the Iraqi government’s regulations and the CMC, which is why we and Iraq, in general, were late in introducing the 4th Generation LTE services.
Lagging in providing the 4G services has affected the Iraqi telecommunications sector’s development as a whole, whereas most neighboring countries are getting ready to launch their 5G services. The existence of 4G LTE services will contribute positively to the development of the national economy. The 4G’s effect will be embedded in developing a digitalized government that will create systematic plans to tackle corruption. It will directly impact the Iraqi market and economy and provide an improved user experience in terms of download speed, connectivity, better app experience, and technology development for Internet users such as gamers, families, and business people.
What are your current plans and your future vision?
Our main goal at Asiacell is to provide the highest quality of services for our customers while generating sustainable net profit for all our stakeholders and investors as we are a publicly-traded company. Our primary focus will be to maintain our position as the market leader in value leadership and digital partnerships. We aim to digitize the Iraqi business and market environment and further develop our digital data centers for our partners and business-to-business solutions. Our teams hope to make Asiacell’s name recognized internationally as the leading telecommunication company.
What made you get involved in supporting startups and the entrepreneurial scene in Iraq?
At Asiacell, we view the entrepreneurial scene in Iraq as an opportunity to rebuild the country’s foundation and build hope in its youth. Over the past several years, a rich culture of entrepreneurship has developed in Iraq, many incubators and accelerators that support startup business launching flourished in the country. These entrepreneurial initiatives have created an opportunity for the youth to discover their talents and creativity and build on their ideas to contribute to the future of their communities. Our main aim is to keep supporting the youth and the entrepreneurial initiatives everywhere in Iraq to revive the country’s economy and build on its youth’s skills and talents.
What are the current initiatives and programs that you support in the entrepreneurial ecosystem?
As mentioned, it is a priority for Asiacell to support as many business incubators and accelerators as possible in Iraq. We have proudly supported KAPITA, Orange Corners, ScaleUp Academy, Cisco Networking Academy’s Business Entrepreneurship in Baghdad, Qaf Media Lab in Mosul, 51Labs in Kurdistan, and several more entrepreneurship workshops and economic initiatives all over Iraq.
How do you perceive the Iraqi startup ecosystem and its future?
The startup ecosystem and its future in Iraq in the medium and long terms are promising. As a country and an economy emerging from conflict, there are undoubtedly several obstacles and challenges, but young entrepreneurs can easily overcome them with patience and perseverance. For decades, the power of government overshadowed most private sector businesses, and they still influence them today. In light of this background, it is fair to say that generally after 2003, recovery and post-conflict reconstruction policies have explicitly targeted the private sector and entrepreneurial scene and strengthened them. These attempts varied from developing regional and foreign trade alliances to a broad development program at the provincial level. Not to forget, many incubators, accelerators, and entrepreneurial startup support programs have been created to support the youth to bring their ideas to life. Iraq’s market is filled with opportunities that need to be taken advantage of, and the Iraqi youth are filled with excitement and creativity. They can carry and contribute to the development of their communities at other levels. Therefore, it is our job as the leading telecommunication company to support and assist in the flourishing of Iraq’s entrepreneurial scene.
What drew you to support ScaleUp Academy and the Orange Corners? What are the criteria that a program, business, or initiative must follow in order to gain your support?
What pushed us to support Orange Corners and ScaleUp Academy is that they combined both the pre-accelerator and the incubator programs needed to support the Iraqi youth gain enough knowledge in turning their ideas into on-ground projects and businesses. The professional training, organized workshops, network creation, possible funding, mentorship, and the dedication to further develop the personal and professional aspects of the participants’ mentality concerning the growth of their business ideas are crucial criteria that we consider to support similar programs.