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Airtel Plans USD 2.4 Billion Push For 4G In Africa

With its Indian wireless business under pressure, Bharti Airtel Ltd has decided to double down on its Africa unit and is readying a war chest of as much as USD 2.4 billion to expand its high-speed 4G data network across the continent.

The telecom operator is also preparing for an initial public offering for its Africa unit in June-July after having raised USD 1.25 billion in pre-IPO fundraising from large investors. “Africa has good prospects. Data is just about starting in Africa. We will take a lead in 4G in Africa. Bharti will spend about USD 700-800 million a year over 2-3 years to expand 4G services and this money will come from the Africa operations itself,” a person with direct knowledge of the matter said, requesting anonymity.

Airtel Africa, the holding company for Bharti Airtel’s operations in 14 countries in the continent, currently offers 4G services in 10 of these nations. By expanding its 4G footprint in the continent, Bharti Airtel is looking to steal a march on its main continental rival South Africa’s MTN. Bharti established its presence in Africa by buying Kuwait-based Zain’s Africa operations for $10.7 billion in 2010.

“MTN is very strong in Africa, but Bharti is beating them everywhere now on an incremental revenue basis. It’s number two in Nigeria. The aim is to be number one or a strong number two in every country in Africa,” the person said. Bharti Airtel declined to comment on the development. Over the past few years, Bharti Airtel has been trying to expand in the African market through local deals. It has so far made three small acquisitions in Uganda, Congo Brazzaville and Kenya.

In October 2017, Airtel inked a deal with Millicom, which operates the Tigo brand, to combine their operations in Ghana. In December that year, Airtel’s Rwanda unit announced the acquisition of Tigo Rwanda Ltd, making Airtel the second largest telecom operator in the African nation.

Till date, Bharti Airtel has invested close to USD 8 billion in Africa. In February 2018, it said that it will consider an IPO for the Africa business. In October, the company said that six investors, including Warburg Pincus, Temasek, Singtel and SoftBank Group International, will invest USD 1.25 billion through a primary equity issuance in Airtel Africa. The funds will be used to pare Airtel Africa’s debt, which then stood at USD 5 billion, and for the growth of its operations, which have seen a turnaround in recent quarters.

In the September quarter, Airtel Africa’s revenue rose 11 percent to USD 824 million from USD 743 million in the year earlier. Data customers during the quarter increased by 6.6 million from 20.5 million in the corresponding period of the previous year to 27.1 million. Bharti Airtel will announce earnings for the December quarter on 31 January.

MTN is the number one operator in most countries in Africa, especially Nigeria, which is the biggest market for telecom services in the continent. Almost one-third of Airtel Africa’s operating profit comes from its Nigerian unit.

In the September quarter, Airtel’s capital expenditure for its Africa operations was $106 million, mostly on investment in data capacities and network modernization. The operating free cash flow from the region was $200 million, as compared to USD 196 million in the year earlier.

In India, too, Bharti Airtel plans to build a separate war chest to take on rival Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd. Last month, Bharti Airtel formed a special committee to explore and evaluate fundraising options with an aim to strengthen its capital structure and balance sheet. The company did not specify the amount it aims to raise. Its other rival Vodafone Idea Ltd, too, approved a rights issue of Rs 25,000 crore last week for existing shareholders to infuse funds in the company.―Livemint

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