Indian telecommunications giant Bharti Airtel has announced that it is considering mergers or outright sales of some of its Africa operations as it looks to cut its overall debt and turn a profit, which could see some changes in the 14 African countries the operator has a presence in.
With a net debt of about US$12 billion, the operator has indicated a willingness stay on the continent, though it is unclear what will happen to its holdings in Chad, Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia following this announcement.
Bharti is also considering selling a stake in Bharti Infratel, its subsidiary which is responsible for tower management and other infrastructure.
Airtel ventured into the African market in 2010 with a $9 billion deal with Kuwait’s largest mobile-phone operator Zain, but it has struggled to gain market share in the countries it operates in.
Collectively, Bharti Airtel's Africa unit lost US$93 million in the quarter ended September 2016, compared with a $170 million loss in the previous year. The operator began talks to sell off its Burkina Faso, Chad, Congo Brazzaville and Sierra Leone units to Orange,
It was hoped that the sale would reduce the company’s debt portfolio, but given the monopolistic tendencies and cartel behaviour that have seen other telcos on the continent struggle to keep up with dominant players, Airtel would still have to struggle in order to make any progress in Africa.
Airtel is also facing competition in its home market of India, particularly from Reliance Jio, and exiting the African market appears to be a move aimed at focusing resources on this market, especially given the blow that Indian businesses have been dealt with following Prime Minister Narendra Modi's demonetization campaign.
Airtel has also suffered from a brand identity crisis, ad the units it has taken over from had often undergone a series of rebrands. In Kenya, for example, the company started off as Kencell, later rebranded to Celtel, and then it was acquired by Zain before ultimately rebranding to Airtel. Compared to Safaricom, which is currently Kenya's most profitable company, Airtel has struggled to gain market share, though it remains Kenya's second-largest operator by number of customers.
Similarly in Nigeria, the operator started out as ECONET Wireless, rebranding to Vodacom Nigeria, then to Vmobile Nigeria, followed by Celtel Nigeria, and Zain Nigeria, then finally to Airtel Nigeria. As is the case in Kenya, the Nigerian unit is far behind the dominant operator, MTN Nigeria, coming in third after Globacom, also known as Glo.
Given the number of high-profile exits that the African telecommunications sector has seen, with France Telecom's Orange pulling out of a number of markets for example, one could conclude that there is little hope for telcos in Africa. The sector remains relatively monopolized, with a few large operators dominating the market and raking in the profits, leaving the smaller operators fighting for scraps.
However, the units are increasingly being acquired by investors who see the sector's potential, such as Helios in the case of Orange Kenya, and the capital injections that these acquisitions bring could be the key to challenging the big players and fighting it out for a share of the profits. Airtel's moves could leave a gap for more such investments, and that could benefit the sector as a whole.