Global trade to empower societies

Why a large mobile operator in a small country believes in free trade

This week, Telenor Group Chief Corporate Affairs Officer Wenche Agerup is in Geneva at the World Trade Organization’s Global Review “Aid for Trade” as one of a handful business representatives.

In a world where the global system of free trade is challenged, Telenor believes it is important to stand up for principles that have helped create shared value for people, business. and society over the past 70 years.

Now more than ever we believe it is important to come together to find common ground and future-proof solutions for global trade in the digital age.

Two decades of learning and co-creation in Bangladesh

Our experience with international business and the long-term positive impact it can have on local communities started 20 years ago in Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh our operation, Grameenphone, is deeply embedded in society, and has been so from the start:

  • building a mobile network from scratch we have helped provide mobile connectivity to the Bangladeshi people, first through the village phone ladies and later with ubiquitous and affordable access for all.
  • This in turn has enabled access to financial services both through our own mobile financial services but also competing third-party providers.
  • Listing Grameenphone on the Dhaka stock exchange contributed to building a healthy capital market in the country, and enabled thousands of Bangladeshi to take part in the value creation of our company.
  • Continuously upgrading our network and offering 3G across most of the country opens doors to offering life-enhancing services such as health, education and more. We do so through our own services such as Tonic, a mobile health initiative, but we also work with local startups and entrepreneurs to foster innovation and business creation based on local talent and creativity.

Helping connect a nation in Myanmar

Grameenphone became for us a blueprint for entering into Myanmar some 17 years later, in 2014. But Myanmar is also different; unconnected for the past decades, the pent up demand for communicating with each other and the outside world was much bigger than we’ve seen before — we connected 521,000 people on the very first day of operation in Yangon. And within 1,000 days in the country we had already launched 4G services.

Enforcing global standards

Using mobile connectivity as a spear for weaving a new fabric for the nation, Myanmar is on the path to succeeding because of forward-thinking policies and transparency. That’s not to say our journey there is without challenges. We work relentlessly to enforce our global standards in Myanmar as in all other markets.

Leapfrogging in practice

Mobile operators in Myanmar have committed to providing coverage for 90% of the population within 5 years. Along the way we build digital skills and literacy among parents and children, and we have launched payment and banking services to help make mobile connectivity work for inclusion also financially. Already we see Myanmar entrepreneurs embracing the tools of digital entrepreneurship. Myanmar is moving up the ladder faster than any other, but it’s still the same ladder.

Digital communication = equalizer

Both the Bangladesh and the Myanmar cases are examples of how digital communication helps empower societies. They are also examples of the shared value of global trade. We would not have been able to launch our services in these markets without regional experience, global partnerships and deep local insight. Enabling companies, even foreign ones, to compete for the business of entire communities help bring better and more affordable services for mass market consumers. We are in Bangladesh and Myanmar because it’s good business. But also because we have been able to strike a balance between a healthy business and reasonable value sharing models with local government.

Not without challenges

Global trade is not without challenges. Foreign companies and global competition challenges entrenched power structures, established markets and existing jobs. Investors from abroad might crowd out local ones, leaving little behind to build long term growth and prosperity. Technology transfer through multinationals may benefit only the company in question and not the industry as a whole. And with global players dominating the digital world, it can be hard for governments to extract value from those who make money on their constituents.

All are valid concerns, but none are definitive arguments against a system that have helped redistribute opportunities and resources to the world’s emerging markets and the millions of people who benefit from thriving global trade.

Now more than ever we believe it is important to come together to find common ground and future-proof solutions for global trade in the digital age.