News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The going gets tougher in African mobile markets?

By writing here quite regularly about developments in Africa, I might have created the impression that I am a regular visitor to that continent. Not so. While it has been my pleasure to meet many telecoms sector executives who work hard to grow their businesses and widen the availability of services across Africa, these meetings have always taken place either on European soil or in the Middle East. Typing with crossed fingers might sound difficult (and painful), but that is what I need to do today because I am fervently hoping to avoid any last-minute problems which might prevent my finally correcting this glaring omission from my experience of world travel. All going well, I should soon be representing my company in Kenya on an admittedly too-short trip to the East African country.

With this in mind, it is perhaps understandable that one article which caught my eye around a week ago was a Financial Times piece about predictions made by MTN boss Phuthuma Nhleko. The influential South African businessman believes the continent will see a wave of telco sector consolidation in the next 1-2 years, and the article contends that this will result from both new entrants and more established competitors struggling to maintain healthy margins in increasingly crowded markets.

At first sight, you might think that there is plenty of room to play in Africa, where mobile penetration stood at just 37.75% by December 2008, according to the Informa Telecoms & Media-run World Cellular Information Service. The FT's Tom Burgis feels that this figure is "far lower than in all other regions." For me, the fact that WCIS logged just 44.64% penetration across the Asia-Pacific region suggests to me that while Africa does stand out, it is clearly not the only part of the world where further robust subscriber growth looks like a possibility.

Despite initially appearing to pick out Africa as the stand-out telco sector investment opportunity of 2009, the FT's Burgis first raises then dashes hopes of truly excellent growth prospects there, arguing that "all but the earliest arrivals in most countries have struggled to make inroads, despite often having to build infrastructure from scratch."

Does that claim stand up to examination? Let's take a look at Africa's most populous state, Nigeria. Here, the country's very first mobile operator is actually among the laggards: WCIS market intelligence suggests that M-TEL, the mobile arm of wireline incumbent Nigerian Telecommunications Limited, had fewer than 260,000 subscribers at the end of 2008, down from around 700,000 in December 2006. At the end of 2005, M-TEL subscribers numbered over one million.

So what has caused this alarming exodus of M-TEL customers? While the success of MTN and others has hurt in recent years, the arrival of the South African cellco's Nigerian subsidiary in 2001 did not immediately cause a reversal of M-TEL's fortunes. Quite the reverse, in fact. The country's first-to-market MNO continued to grow well when MTN and fellow 2001 entrant Econet Wireless Nigeria hit the local mobile scene.

Any subscriber loyal to the latter ever since its launch would be forgiven for having become a bit confused by regular branding changes. Econet was redubbed Vee Mobile in 2004 as a result of a protracted wrangle that I won't even try to summarise here. 2006 saw another rebranding when the MNO was acquired by Celtel International, another transaction not without twists and turns. A notable difficulty was the the last-ditch attempt by Econet Wireless to block the USD 1 billion acquisition. At the time, Informa's Global Mobile reported that Econet, as a co-founder of the cellco, had "long asserted preemptive rights" and was claiming to have "raised more than US$1.5 billion to acquire the company" while protesting that it had been "prevented from making payment."

By the time Celtel brand made its debut in Nigeria, the pan-African mobile group founded by Dr. Mo Ibrahim had already been acquired by Kuwait-based MTC, now known as Zain. In 2007, when MTC came up with the Zain brand, it was announced that the Celtel name would continue to be used across the group's African footprtint, at least for a while. As Global Mobile Daily reported at the time, the the decision to retain the Celtel name "was aimed at maintaining continuity", precisely because of how recently the operations in Nigeria and Kenya had been rebranded.

Fast forward to August 2008: after barely two years of operating with the Celtel name, the Econet-Vee Mobile-Celtel branding roadshow arrived at its most recent stop.

"Zain wants to be one of the top 10 mobile operators in the world within the next three years, and it has developed the Zain brand as the main vehicle for that global aspiration, because the company sees mobile telecoms as a commoditized business in which branding is one of a few important differentiating factors that are available to it," said my former colleague Matthew Reed at the time. Matt, the Middle East & Africa Intelligence Centre editor continued with words of warning: "Celtel is one of the best-known and most successful homegrown brands in Africa, and there are risks - as well as huge costs - in rebranding the Celtel operations. Zain also regards its One Network scheme as an important differentiator, but to some extent it can be copied by other multicountry operators."

The Nigerian market entry of MTN and Econet-Vee Mobile-Celtel-Zain (phew!) was enabled by the January 2001 auction of some GSM licences, with one reserved for existing player M-TEL, which up to then had run a TACS network used by around 40,000 subscribers. My understanding is that the Nigerian Government had intended to sell three licences in addition to the one put aside for M-TEL. One of these was not used.

One 2001 AllAfrica article that I found today tells the story of how Mike Adenuga, a billionaire businessman, banker and oil mogul had hoped to take part in the country's GSM revolution. His company, Communications Investment Limited (CIL), had emerged as one of the auction winners of the three slots auctioned by the government, but, the article states "barely a month later, things [had] turned sour for CIL and its quest for a digital mobile telephone licence." What went wrong for CIL, continues the article, "depends on who you talk to" with the the Nigerian Communications Commission saying that "CIL failed to pay for is licence in time" and CIL saying "it had demonstrated that it had produced the funds but was delaying the final stage of payment, because it was trying to clarify the status of the frequency it had been allocated."

"When you begin from day one with a frequency that is encumbered, that puts you at a disadvantage with your competitors," a spokesman for CIL told Allafrica at the time, adding that CIL "realised that the frequency given to it by NCC had previously been awarded to another company, and was the subject of a court case."

After this frustrating delay, Mike Adenuga finally got to compete in the Nigerian mobile arena in 2003, when Globacom launched services. Since then, the company has gone on to acquire over 16 million subscribers, including the roughly 30,000 that have been persuaded of the value of 3G services since Globacom's W-CDMA network launch in February last year. Going to market later than the 2001 auction winners does not seem to have prevented Dr. Adenuga's company from establishing a solid presence in the market, although it is worth noting that Globacom's market share has been declining fairly steadily since peaking at around 31% in the Spring of 2007. Globacom, now with a 25% share of the Nigerian market, has sought growth opportunities elsewhere in West Africa, rapidly establishing a solid presence in Benin and buying a mobile licence in Ghana, where sub-50% mobile penetration and a population of over 20 million may present a good growth opportunity.

Given the MTN CEO's comments reported by the Financial Times this week, it will be interesting to see if Globacom's foray into Ghana proves challenging in terms of maintaining decent margins. Back in Nigeria, we can watch how Etisalat manages to fare, having entered the market as recently as last year. Despite Globacom being pushed back in terms of market share over the last couple of years, with 16 million subscribers, it seems hard to argue that going to market later than its competitors has hurt the company badly in the sense of establishing a presence.

I will be interested to see how far an examination of further African markets in future posts will dig up evidence to support the notion that the going is about to get tougher for new entrants and established players alike.

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