Ghada Gebara, CEO of Korek Telecom talks about the development of the company, how it intends to expand into the 3G market and the importance of ICT and telecommunications in creating solid infrastructure and jobs.
Kindly give us a brief overview of the Iraqi telecommunications sector, and how Korek Telecom began.
Telecommunications in Iraq started in phases. In 2000, the Ministry of Telecommunications issued licenses. Korek was granted a five year GSM license to operate within Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Duhok. Korek is the first privately-owned telecom company in the Kurdistan region.
Liberalization took place in 2007. The Communications & Media Commission (CMC) released a tender for long-term mobile services licenses in the country – a year after it had concluded the tender for fixed licenses for local telecom services. It was an important milestone for Korek.
The company was awarded one of the three national licenses in the country. A few months later, Korek entered into a US$2.2-billion joint venture with the Egyptian Orascom. This partnership opened up access to the northern region. Today, Korek offers telecom services all over the country.
The industry has gone a long way since then, with a market penetration rate of 75% to 76%.
Yes, we have. Of course, 75% is low compared to Europe and some Arab countries. However, it is important to note that nearly 45% of the Iraqi population is less than 15 years old. This means that almost everyone can afford a phone. Some even have more than one unit.
What are the key growth challenges for the company?
The market continues to be dynamic. New developments take place. Communication is no longer as straightforward as a phone call. Now, you have broadband, Internet, mobile browsing, video calls, MMS, mobile email, and e-Money. The challenge is in coping with the increasingly sophisticated demands of the market. In terms of Internet services, we hope to achieve the same success we have had with voice, going from 5% to 7% in only four years, growing from 1% to 100%. The goal is to offer high quality, affordable web access.
Korek has been evolving. Last year, it sold a total of 44% of their shares to Agility (of Kuwait) and France Telecom-Orange.
Korek is a shared limited telecom company registered to operate and provide GSM services in Iraq. Last year, it entered into a partnership agreement with France Telecom-Orange and Agility. France Telecom-Orange now owns 20% of the company, while Agility holds 24%.
ICT is a crucial element in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI).
Yes, it is. It is a key component of infrastructure. It is as vital as roads, water and electricity. For every 10% mobile market penetration, you increase the GDP by 1%. The potential for Internet is even higher. For every 10,000 connections, you create at least 80 jobs.
What are your thoughts on foreign investment in the Kurdish-Iraqi ICT sector?
Foreign investment is crucial, not only for ICT, but for the entire economy. Everywhere you go, foreign investment plays an important role. Everybody is looking into country branding to attract FDI.
In Kurdistan and Iraq, all the laws are there. I can testify that in Kurdistan, where we are, it is working and we can see it. There are several facilities for investment. The opportunities are there. Proof of that in Korek is its partnership with France Telecom-Orange and Agility.
We understand that Korek is introducing 3G/LTE services this year.
We are still working on this with the regulator. There is still some resistance from the government because they do not know how to manage it. We are ready to move to 3G. We are just waiting for the frequencies to be given to us so that we can go live.
You have been the CEO since August, last year. What legacy would you like to leave behind?
I want Korek to be the top player in its category. I intend to accomplish this by being honest with our service – doing what we say we would do. It is about giving the best service. That is what the customer wants, after all.
What would you say is your recipe for success?
It is not about where you come from. It is hard work and heart that make success.
What sets Kurdistan apart from the rest?
We have found a way to move on from the injustices of the past to build a common future. There is no discrimination. What matters is where you are now, where you intend to go, and what you have achieved with what you have been given.
In Kurdistan, the Peshmerga, who once fought for the freedom of the people are now managing companies. They understand that peace and forgiveness are essential to moving forward. That has been our success. Achieving this understanding is what we hope for, for the rest of the region.