Amer Sunna leads one of Iraq’s most successful bands, Asiacell. His journey is a great lesson in resilience and humility in a country where the challenges are innumerable. What is it to be an entrepreneur in Iraq and succeed in the face of headwinds? From one geographic region to another, is success above all a story of vision, will and human values? Forbes offers you to sweep away the clichés. Interview.
Nothing predestined you to become one of Iraq’s most prominent business leaders. A very complicated country for doing business, even more so when you are an immigrant who started from nothing … Finally, entrepreneurial success has only one barrier, the mind?
Amer Sunna : Completely! On paper, I was not at all destined to become the CEO of one of Iraq’s most successful companies. As a Jordanian immigrant, however, I was not “lost in translation” because of my cultural and historical proximity to this neighboring country. The presence of certain members of my family also facilitated my integration. After that, it was a question of philosophy to adopt: who do we want to be? What goals do we set in life and what means do we give ourselves to achieve them? I wanted to become an entrepreneur to support the development and growth of a business. It was my vocation. Whatever the country, I will have followed this objective. If not, I hear the meaning of your question: do you think that we necessarily have a different state of mind when we evolve in a developing country? I will tell you no, when you are in the action: sky is the limit! ( the sky is your limit, Editor’s note).
Would you say that Iraq offers fertile ground for entrepreneurship?
AS : The key to success is to look beyond stereotypes and turn challenges into opportunities. Here, the population regularly demonstrates innovation, determination, adaptability and ingenuity to overcome many challenges. There is a desire to create the conditions for success in the face of the challenges. It is therefore easier to embark your employees on the adventure because everyone will feel united and, even more, in confidence.
Asiacell was founded in 1999 and under your presidency started in 1999, the company has grown significantly. How did you manage to change the scale?
AS : Before accessing the highest positions, to be distinguished ‘CEO of the year’ by the Asia Communications Awards, I started at the bottom as a technician and then moved into the commercial field. These field experiences allowed me to have a good understanding of the company, its ecosystem, but also to strengthen my sense of business. Nothing replaces the field! A framework may lack realism which will sanction it in terms of flexibility and responsiveness, it is key to have a good overview. By taking the leadership, I acquired the ability to quickly adjust the procedures put in place. Beyond this aspect, there is the strategic direction. If Asiacell has become one of the heavyweights of the Iraqi economy, it is because there was a vision, that of setting the group’s priorities, guiding investments, anticipating the future, unite teams around common values of inclusion, trust and performance.
Very important too, you have to know how to inspire. Our philosophy has always been to dominate the market in terms of digitization, innovations and technological trends in order to always stay in step with the changes in our sector. We are continuously investing in the development of the fiber optic network and in data centers nationwide to overcome these challenges and provide the best sustainable service. Objective: meet customer expectations. This regardless of whether these investments will, by law, be the property of the government. To date, Asiacell has invested more than 26 millions of dollars in fiber Iraqi optics and will continue to do so. Asiacell is the only telecom in Iraq with Tier III data centers.
Does the Iraqi market need such high tech facilities as the ecosystem is not yet digitized? Why is this a priority?
AS : This investment is certainly one of the wisest. Ensuring the availability and sustainability of our services and providing reliable network coverage to our customers will clearly accelerate data growth in the market. Asiacell has taken on the responsibility of investing in infrastructure to develop its leadership in the areas of voice, data, digitization, IoT, B2B and beyond. The growth of a country is correlated with the modernity and national network of its infrastructures. telecommunications , as an industry, is highly dependent on the availability of a solid and reliable infrastructure. In fact, this vision made it possible to make Asiacell one of the major players in the Iraqi economy.
Even if Iraq is not a market as mature and developed as a country like France, how does Asiacell stimulate the economy of your country?
AS : As telecom operators, we have a role to play in helping to connect populations, not only in our territory, but also with the outside world. It is a known fact, in France, Iraq or elsewhere: the mobile industry helps promote digital inclusion by connecting more people every day. Today, Asiacell’s coverage reaches 51% of the population and has been analyzed by the American company Ookla as offering the best coverage in Iraq. Ookla is one of the world’s leading agencies for web testing and network diagnostics.
We always aspire to be a major pillar in the growth and deployment of the economy. Our commitment to Iraqis is to deploy our 4G service for 99% of our sites in the first quarter 2022. This remarkable task was accomplished less than a year after the official launch of 4G in Iraq.
Iraq has some of the highest tariffs in the world in data matter. Although Asiacell provides the fastest connection and the best coverage in the country, how do you – still – justify being in the higher bracket? When we refer to the classification Cable , some countries are able to offer lower prices.
AS : Your question is twofold . First, it is worth pointing out the main factor at play: intellectual property. In Iraq, it comes under the state monopoly. Concretely, this means that Asiacell and other operators buy intellectual property from the relevant ministries ( Communication, Information and Telecom) and this, through its ISP partners (internet service providers) before being able to resell it to end customers. Selling prices are directly affected by cost prices, which in Iraq are the highest in the region. For example, Asiacell buys IP ( intellectual property ) at 26 $ per Mbps ( megabits per second) from its two partners mentioned above, while the regional price trend is between $ 1 and $ 5. So that gives you some concrete elements of appreciation.
Keep in mind that the price was much higher in recent years, but through direct negotiations and continuous efforts, we have succeeded in reducing costs. Also, it went hand in hand with the millions of dollars we have invested in our infrastructure and fiber optics on behalf of the government for the benefit of customers.
The second factor which affects our prices is linked to the high operational costs in Iraq which include security, electricity, fuel, fees and taxes. These, as well as others, definitely put pressure on the price of our services, thereby exerting a price increase.
Amer Sunna: “Both in my life and in my career, the person who had a very important impact is the president of Asiacell: Faruk Mustafa Rasool. He is my inspiration in his way of analyzing, operating and managing challenges. I am always grateful for his mentorship. ”
Of all these achievements, what is your greatest success?
AS : Asiacell celebrates a very rich history in the region, which makes it quite difficult for me to single out a specific event. However, if I had to choose a key step, it would be the launch of 4G in Iraq. Asiacell got BIG on this project. Eight months after the launch, we had already captured 30% of the 4G market share in Iraq. I think we can all agree with Benjamin Franklin’s saying, “Without continuous growth and progress, words like improvement, achievement, and success just don’t make sense.”
Safety is also a central topic in your country. What was the most difficult decision you have had to make while in your country? was ravaged by war?
AS : Every ruler of he company is faced with difficult decisions in the performance of its duties, both in this region of the world and elsewhere in Paris or Singapore. Respond to growing customer demands, manage teams, collaborate with the various stakeholders… there is no shortage of imperatives! But as CEO of Asiacell carrying out his activity at a time that saw the emergence of the terrorist group DAECH, my life as an entrepreneur has inevitably changed! Never had I been exposed to so many challenges! New challenges. I was forced to close my offices in Mosul, Anbar, Tikrit and Kirkuk, places plagued by violence and darkness. We had to remain standing while awaiting the defeat of DAECH. This streak is therefore definitely the most difficult period of my career. This is why I was governed by the absolute objective of resuming my missions, of rebuilding the telecommunications network, of triumphing economically and humanly.
Of course, this kind of hardships makes you stronger, more resilient because you must inspire rebirth and hope in your collaborators. I pay tribute to them because it is their commitment, their loyalty and support that has allowed Asiacell to bounce back to become the leader in our sector.
In this era of a global pandemic, how to best embody the figure of leader to face the multiple crises generated by the Covid?
AS : The Covid certainly raises a unique set of challenges. The most important thing as a leader is to value the dedication of its employees fully mobilized in their mission, to provide them with a safe and healthy environment. Driven by this collaborative mindset, Asiacell succeeds in effectively maintaining its operations, services and product availability. Asiacell has become an extension of my family. I also make a point of meeting the employees. I like to have their feedback, vibrations and perspectives while highlighting their major contribution to the success of the company. My leadership is inspired by the values advocated by the president of our g roup, Faruk Mustafa Rasool. For him, Asiacell is a family. It is always available and accessible to any collaborator in the organization, whether it is with a simple call, a visit or a scheduled meeting. A visionary in every sense of the word, President Rasool has paved the way for a more prosperous future in the world of technology and investing with integrity and passion. He is a role model.
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