Mr Ziad Shatara, Chief Executive Officer, Smart Axiata Cambodia, speaks to Khmer Times, in conjunction with the 66th Malaysia Day Special Edition.
Q: Could you share some of the milestones achieved by Smart Axiata as one of the leading telecom operators in the Kingdom?
A: Smart Axiata is one of the major contributors to the economy of the Kingdom of Cambodia, driving significant impact and acting as a catalyst for growth and innovation. In 2022, our national Gross Value Added (GVA) reached an impressive 416 million USD, representing a substantial 1.6% of the nation’s GDP. Moreover, we made a significant financial contribution of 103 million USD to the national treasury and public finance, accounting for 2% of the total tax revenue in the country. This achievement has earned us recognition as the fifth top tax-paying entity in Cambodia.
We pride ourselves on establishing a strong foundation of connectivity and continuously expanding our network, guided by our commitment to provide “4G for all.” It is with great honour that we have recently gained recognition for delivering the highest “4G Service Availability” to users in Cambodia.
Furthermore, Smart remains devoted to promoting the growth of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Cambodia. Through our Smart Axiata Digital Innovation Fund (SADIF), we invested in local digital companies, including established enterprises such as Nham24 and Morakot Technologies. We empower local artists to become entrepreneurs and generate income through their music compositions and videos. Our commitment to fostering entrepreneurship extends to our corporate social responsibility programs, such as SmartSpark+, SmartStart Unipreneur Learning Program (ULP), and SmartEdu University Student Development Program (USDP). These programs aim to encourage and support the emergence of startups in Cambodia, nurturing the country’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Continuously at the forefront of innovation, we always introduce an array of digital services and solutions to enhance our customer experiences. Among our offerings are mobile internet of things (IoT) devices and solutions like Smart@Home for home WiFi and Smart Home solutions. In addition, we have launched digital platforms for entertainment, such as Pleng, and embarked on enterprise solutions, including Fleet Management and Smart Sponsored Call and Data.
Q: How has been the company contributing towards grooming local talents in the telecom sector?
A: Smart Axiata has made significant contributions to Cambodia’s economy by creating employment opportunities and equipping individuals with invaluable skills that are scarce in the country. In 2022, we supported a total of 57,100 individuals through both direct and indirect employment, prioritizing fair practices that embrace diversity and equal opportunities, with 97.6% of our workforce being Cambodian. Our commitment to continuous learning and development is at the core of our world-class human resources program, fostering a growth mindset and empowering employees at all levels. Through various training initiatives, workshops, and seminars, we provide opportunities for our employees to enhance their skills, stay updated with industry trends, and remain relevant in the dynamic telecom sector. Additionally, as part of the Axiata Group, Smart Axiata offers access to exposure and learning from telecom companies in other Asian countries within the group, serving as a centre of excellence and a valuable resource pool. This advantage empowers individuals who have been employed at Smart to excel in other organizations, particularly in the digital and technical fields.
Aside from grooming our employees, we are actively involved in grooming individuals in the community through various initiatives:
Scholarship Programs: We provide scholarships to support the education and development of underprivileged Cambodian students who are interested in pursuing careers in the telecom and digital sector.
Basic Education Equivalent Program (BEEP): We support the Basic Education Equivalent Program of the Ministry of Education Youth and Sports and Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training under the facilitation of UNESCO, which aims to provide education opportunities to dropouts, giving them a second chance to continue their education and acquire valuable skills. This program plays a vital role in developing a skilled workforce by providing education and training to those who may have missed out on formal educational pathways.
Digital Internship 4.0 Program: Through our training and internship program called the Digital Internship 4.0 Program, we offer young Cambodians valuable hands-on experience and exposure to the telecommunications industry. This program is designed to enhance their skills, knowledge, and employability in the sector, preparing them for future career opportunities.
Q: What are your suggestions for the new Cabinet especially in terms of 5G rollout and other telecom reforms?
A: Smart recognizes the immense potential of 5G technology as a driver for economic growth in Cambodia. We understand that 5G is not solely a telecom revolution, but rather an opportunity to enhance the efficiency and competitiveness of Cambodian products and services across various sectors.
The success of 5G technology is intricately linked to the reliable infrastructure of our established and maintained 4G networks. Our robust and stable 4G network places us as a key private sector partner in the ongoing development and implementation of 5G technology in Cambodia. We recognize the importance of public-private partnerships in driving sustainable economic and social development. As such, we are wholeheartedly dedicated to supporting and collaborating with the Royal Government of Cambodia to foster a more efficient and competitive nation, enabling a successful digital transformation journey for the country. By working hand in hand, our aim is to propel Cambodia’s technological advancement and facilitate its growth in the digital age.
Q: What are the challenges in the telecom sector as the Kingdom along with the world embraces the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
A: The government’s ambition to achieve accelerated growth and create a digital economy and society in Cambodia implies that the telecom sector has high targets to meet in terms of growth, infrastructure development, connectivity, and innovation.
To achieve these ambitious goals, the telecom sector will need to make bigger investments in various areas. There will be a need for substantial investment in infrastructure development including expanding the network coverage, upgrading existing infrastructure, and deploying new technologies like 5G. These investments require significant capital and long-term planning.
The post-COVID lifestyle has necessitated a shift towards a more sophisticated digital way of life. As people spend more time online, their digital needs have become more diverse and complex. To keep up with the rapidly changing digital landscape, telecom companies must quickly adapt by fostering innovation and providing solutions that meet the evolving needs of businesses and consumers. This requires immediate investments in research and development, as well as collaboration with technology partners to stay at the forefront of technological advancements.
Despite the increasing demand for internet services, it is important to note that Cambodians heavily rely on mobile internet rather than fixed-line connections. It is necessary for Cambodia to focus on improving connectivity options. By doing so, telecom companies can effectively meet the high demand for mobile data services and provide users with seamless connectivity.
In the rapidly evolving digital landscape, cybersecurity and data privacy are paramount for responsible telecom businesses like us. We understand the importance of safeguarding businesses and consumers from cybersecurity breaches and data privacy violations. By adopting a zero-tolerance approach to such threats, we prioritize the protection of sensitive information and aim to maintain trust in the telecom sector. However, these efforts require substantial investments in cybersecurity and data privacy measures to safeguard customers’ sensitive information and maintain a secure digital ecosystem.
Q: Could you speak about your areas of cooperation and coordination with the Kingdom’s telecom regulator to ensure that the rights of customers are not taken for granted?
A: Advancements in technology have led to greater complexity in telecom products and services, which can be challenging for the average consumer to navigate. To address this, we must prioritize transparency and simplify our offerings. Smart has been closely collaborating with the Telecom Regulator of Cambodia to ensure that our products and services are transparent, easily understandable, and straightforward for customers. This has been achieved through the deployment of tools like SmartNas, our self-care app. With SmartNas, customers gain full control over their balance by having the ability to track their usage and monitor their remaining balance. This empowers customers to make informed decisions and effectively manage their telecom services. The aim is to provide clear and accessible information to customers, fostering trust and enhancing their overall experience with our products and services.
Q: What have been the efforts exerted by Smart Axiata to empower its transformation into a digital lifestyle brand?
A: At Smart, we have taken significant steps to transform into a digital lifestyle brand, by enhancing connectivity, offering diverse apps and content, facilitating digital transactions, and supporting startups and digital literacy. We empower individuals and businesses to fully embrace and benefit from the digital revolution.
Smart has been offering affordable devices to customers, such as the SmartHero series phone, that customers can easily afford to purchase.
We have prioritized expanding and enhancing network coverage, upgrading infrastructure, and introducing new technologies like home internet/fiber+ services. This ensures reliable and high-speed connectivity for customers, enabling seamless access to digital services and lifestyles.
We have established platforms, such as SmartPay and the Pleng app, to facilitate digital transactions. This allows our customers to conveniently make digital payments, transfer funds, and access financial services, supporting the growth of the digital economy and cashless payments.
At Smart, we are actively supporting digital startups. We offer a range of resources, mentorship programs, and funding opportunities to help startups thrive. Moreover, we promote digital literacy through our marketing campaign and engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities to ensure that everyone has the necessary skills to succeed in the digital era.
Q: Being a quintessentially Malaysian company, do you see more and more Malaysian tech and telecom firms entering the Kingdom’s market and reaping success?
A: Smart is one of the key success stories of Malaysian investment in Cambodia. Being the sole prominent Malaysian player in the tech and telecom sector in the Kingdom, Smart has experienced remarkable growth and has become one of the largest telecom businesses, making a substantial contribution to Cambodia’s national economy and development agenda. This success serves as a testament to the potential for foreign direct investment companies to thrive and expand. Given the continued achievements and the conducive business environment that supports Smart’s growth in the Cambodian economy, it is highly likely to inspire other tech investors from Malaysia to explore opportunities for establishing additional tech firms in Cambodia.
Q: Could you throw some light on Smart’s partnerships with local franchise firms and businesses?
A: Smart has consistently played a role in promoting the growth and development of the local economy by supporting local firms and businesses. In 2022, we actively collaborated with 234 local suppliers, accounting for approximately 67% of our total suppliers. This collaboration resulted in the creation and support of approximately 57,100 jobs, both directly and indirectly, thus making a significant contribution to the local workforce and economic prosperity.
Moreover, we place great emphasis on encouraging our suppliers to adhere to the supplier code of conduct. This ensures that they meet ethical standards and practice responsible sourcing, contributing to the sustainable and healthy growth of the Cambodian economy.
Q: What are Smart’s future plans for the Kingdom’s telecom market? Could you share with our readers some of the products that are in the pipeline?
A: As we embark on our digitalization journey, we are committed to collaborating with the Royal Government of Cambodia to further evolve and expand our services. Our goal is to provide stable and high-quality connectivity to remote areas, bridging the digital divide and ensuring that more citizens have access to digital opportunities. In addition to connectivity, we are also focused on working with content developers and suppliers to create relevant and meaningful content for the public.
At Smart, we have consistently demonstrated our willingness to invest in and adopt new technologies. We prioritize both infrastructure development and the enhancement of our human capacity to embrace these innovations. In line with this, we are planning to introduce a diverse range of products that cater to the growing digital demands of consumers. This includes offerings for households as well as Business-to-Business (B2B) services, with a particular focus on supporting local Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in their digital growth and business expansion in the digital economy.
Q: You are one of the top 10 taxpayers in the country and also a very active player in CSR and ESG activities. What motivates you in this and what benefits do you reap?
A: Sustainability is in our DNA, shaping every aspect of our operations. We think long-term, striving for the benefit of all. Our team believes wholeheartedly in the power of businesses to make a positive impact on society and the environment as part of our commitment to the National Building Agenda. Through our active engagement in CSR and ESG initiatives, we have leveraged our resources to address social and environmental concerns, creating meaningful change in society and the world. These endeavors not only fulfill our obligations, but also foster collaboration and partnerships with individuals, organizations, and government who share the same vision, sustainability. By joining forces, we gain access to a vast network of experts, resources, and innovative ideas, amplifying the magnitude of our impact and driving the effectiveness of our endeavours.
At Smart, we believe that sustainability goes beyond words – it is an integral part of our identity, driving us to make a real difference in the world.
Q: When do you foresee the 5G rollout?
A: As the digital economy and society continue to evolve, the 5G rollout in Cambodia is not a matter of “if” but “when.” At Smart, we are well-prepared and ready, regardless of the timing of Cambodia’s adoption. We have made the internal preparations and investments necessary for the 5G rollout, ensuring that we have the infrastructure and capabilities in place. Our teams are equipped with the necessary skills to handle 5G technology effectively. Once the country is ready to embrace 5G, we are excited to embark on this journey together to contribute to the growth and advancement of Cambodia.
- Tags: Mr Ziad Shatara, Smart Axiata