The MNO View: Q&A with Kaan Terzioğlu, CEO, Turkcell

Turkcell is the biggest MNO in Turkey and has been at the forefront of the national response to the influx of over 2 million refugees from Syria. Mr Terzioğlu explains why helping refugees is not just important to him personally, but also good business for the company.

BIO: Kaan Terzioğlu was appointed the CEO of Turkcell Group on April 1st, 2015. Headquartered in Turkey, Turkcell operates in 8 other countries through subsidiaries and partnerships – Ukraine, Belarus, Northern Cyprus, Germany, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova. Mr Terzioğlu is vocal advocate of socially responsible business practices. Under his leadership, Turkcell has been at the forefront of facilitating the integration of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Mr Terzioğlu was a speaker at the UN’s first-ever World Humanitarian Summit organized in Istanbul in May 2016. He has recently joined GSMA Director General Mats Granryd during the UN Private Sector Forum held in New York as a part of the UN General Assembly on September 19th, 2016.

Why do you personally believe it is so important to help refugees?

Firstly I have personal experience of displacement in my family. My family was part of the Greek-Turkish population exchange in 1923. Two countries agreed to exchange populations mutually because what they considered “minorities” did not fit the criteria of language, or religion.

“When people leave their country, the smartphone is not a sign of richness. It’s the only thing that connects them to the people left behind, or the way they communicate with people in a new country.”

That is my personal history and today, I see this incredible ignorance about what is going on in Syria. We all have a duty to educate people that a refugee is not someone who is necessarily poor. Many are actually coming from middle-class families, solid professional lives and hopes, but their homes have been destroyed or they have to protect their family members by moving them to another country.

I think we have to understand that they are in need of support and I would love to see them stay in Turkey and lead happy lives. This is how countries develop. If you look back to development of the US it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s about bringing people in and onwards and helping them integrate into society.

Two women in a refugee centre in Turkey looking at the menu of the “Learn Turkish” section of Turkcell’s Hello Hope application

Why is it so important that Turkcell plays a part in this response?

As communication providers, we have a key role to play in this. When people leave their country, the smartphone is not a sign of richness. It’s the only thing that connects them to the people left behind, or the way they communicate with people in a new country.

Potentially it’s a tool for them to learn a new language or find a new job. And we need to understand that this tool is fundamental to their existence. We have to make their lives easier in terms of providing better services for them, communicating better with their community.

That’s why we decided to increase our investments in the border region. This meant more base stations, more fibre, making sure we had the proper plans so they could have access to a phone and to a certain extent Internet and voice service. The number of cell towers serving the camps on the five border cities installed in the last four years is equivalent to the entire number of towers serving a city like Mardin (population 750,000) over our 22 year history. We have also provided a call centre service, the first one in Turkey, to support these people in an effective way. And all that is why we have more than 70% of the refugees in Turkey using our service.

Can you explain why Turkcell has taken a whole of company approach to the refugee challenge, rather than seeing it as a CSR issue like many other MNOs?

The arrival of Syrian refugees is an opportunity and it’s driving innovation. We have become much more aware of markets that we were not before.

I’m not at all embarrassed with the fact that more than 1.2 million refugees are also our customers, meaning that they are paying customers. These people are not in need of money they are in need of help. That’s why I see this as an integral part of our business, and not just something that we do on the side, to donate money to a charity so they can get food or shelter. This is a way of doing business. We are here to help people live a better life and improve their quality of life and therefore I consider this the pinnacle of our service. If I can help a refugee, that’s actually the ultimate value proposition I can propose to the buyer. That’s why we are focusing our best technologies on these kinds of opportunities.

“The arrival of Syrian refugees is an opportunity and it’s driving innovation. We have become much more aware of markets that we were not before.”

Recently Turkcell has worked hard to engage with professional humanitarian groups including UN leadership. Why?

Firstly, I think it’s an incredibly strong mechanism to have voices heard. I see humanitarian agencies as a platform to educate world leaders. In my experience, we can provide humanitarian aid directly to these people through communication services and some of the other things we have done and that is more effective than indirect aid through these organisations. But I think these organisations are great ambassadors.

I also believe that mobile operators are an essential player in humanitarian situations, whether it be an earthquake or a refugee crisis or an epidemic, we will be providing communication services to everyone.

There is also the research and design element. Technology companies like us use AR and VR and AI (artificial intelligence) and these tools are not just for wealthy kids to play games. They can mean something and can create value for people in need of help. This type of knowledge sharing is critical. I wish we had more exposure to certain problems that the UN is experiencing in other parts of the world – we could propose other solutions. I know for example that clean water is an issue. Maybe we should put sensors on mobile phones that can tell if water is clean or not. It’s not a difficult thing to do.

I believe operators like us are interested in looking at how to solve those issues in a more effective way. Smartphones are more powerful than a mainframe computer 20 years ago. – and people have it in their hands. Let’s use that. Let’s use it for something meaningful rather than playing games!

I also believe we have to be actively engaged with humanitarian agencies, to tell them what we are doing so it can become perhaps good practice with application in other parts of the world. And that’s why we have supported the UN’s first ever World Humanitarian Summit and signed the GSMA Humanitarian Connectivity charter.

Turkcell CEO Kaan Terzioğlu meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016.

What thoughts do you have for other MNOs who are thinking about service for refugees in their countries?

Most of the MNOs in the world have improving quality of life as part of their vision and mission statements. I’m 100% sure that even in the most advanced countries there are opportunities that are untapped. Rather than doing simple donations for a certain cause we have to use our resources – and we have many resources. We have engineers, we have infrastructure, we have financial means and if we actually use these resources to come up with meaningful ways of improving lives then we should not let that opportunity go. We should have a plan for that. It’s also an R&D project for all of our operations.

What do you see ahead in terms of Turkcell’s work with refugee customers?

This is moving to another phase now: these are not people who have come and who will go. Most of them will stay. We have actually made a study that shows that 52% of the Syrians in Turkey have been here for at least 2 years – you are talking out of 2.8 million people. And 47% of these people, they think they will be living in Turkey for the next 5 years.

“The arriving population is educated, multi lingual and extremely keen to work. We can help with that.”

So we have a situation where we have to stop complaining and start integrating them into daily live and making them productive, potential citizens. So we have to continue looking at ways to help refugees integrate and make their lives easier. For example we are launching an app called Hello Hope. It has a translation engine so you can literally speak Arabic and it translates it into Turkish, or speak Turkish and hear Arabic – voice to voice, not through text. Is it perfect? No. But it helps.

We can help with other challenges too. There are nearly half a million primary school age children who need education but are out of school. Imagine the impact on the school system. I truly believe that by using mobile technologies we can help with challenges like meeting basic education needs. We have now made a deal that makes basic content for primary school education available in Arabic. We are putting Arabic subtitles on all our broadcasts. Anything we can do to help people feel at home and integrate fast. The arriving population is educated, multi lingual and extremely keen to work. We can help with that.

I truly believe that the period of one individual working for one company is coming to an end. That means the workforce will be virtualised. More and more everything turns into cloud environments. I think the workforce will virtualised in a way that people will be working simultaneously for more than one company. For example, maybe you will be easily able to translate a book with real editorial quality by hiring writers or reporters who work remotely. There are so many opportunities to create jobs this way. That practically means that we can bring work to tablets and smartphones. I want to create new jobs, tapping into the human resources potential of refugees as well to make sure they can work through these platforms. I see smartphones as potentially either means of delivery for doing a job, or a means for learning about a job opportunity, and these are the two areas I would like to focus on.

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