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

Friday, 12 June 2009

Out of Africa: Zain to sell assets to a European buyer?

Earlier this week I started to receive email news updates suggesting that Zain, the Kuwait-headquartered multinational telecoms group specialising in mobile communications across the Middle East and Africa may be quitting the latter territory.

If this is correct, Zain's stay in Africa will turn out to have been quite a short one, having extended its reach from its Middle East roots via the 2005 acquisition of Celtel International, the pan-African telecoms group founded by the Sudanese-born British entrepreneur Dr. Mo Ibrahim.

One report from TelecomPaper contends that Zain Group may agree as early as this week to sell its African unite to a French company for up to USD 12 billion. A French company? A good guess has to be France Telecom/Orange, right? That was my first guess, but one report from a Nigerian newspaper is tipping Vivendi, the telecoms and media group whose assets include majority stakes in French quad-player SFR and Morocco's Maroc Telecom. It must be said that I haven't found any other articles naming Vivendi as an interested party...

The Nigerian report continues that if the deal isn't settled, Zain will study bids made by other companies. Apparently, the plan is for the French company to buy Zain Africa's debts, which will be discounted from the purchase price.

If there is any truth in this story, genuinely savvy market-watchers are now invited to smile at my naivety now because I must admit that since well before the inception of this blog, I have regularly opined that in the current economic climate, the only telecoms strategic investors likely to remain acquisitive, expanding their geographical reach in any major way, would be those headquartered in the Middle East and Gulf region. I was, of course, thinking of Zain as well as the likes of Etisalat and QTel. If these reports are to be believed, however, we will see a major Gulf region player divesting significant assets with a European buyer being the acquirer. Not at all what I would have expected.

If the timing of this were different, perhaps the pool of prospective purchasers would be larger. For example, one player which would presumably find it very challenging to become involved right now in a tussle for Zain's African assets is the South Africa-headquartered MTN group. If Zain really does intend to quit Africa, the timing is odd, argues Lesley Stones of MoneyBiz. Stones feels that MTN is an "obvious suitor" and therefore wonders why Zain would put its African business up for sale just as the South African group is negotiating a tie-up with Bharti Airtel of India, especially because these two "have agreed to talk exclusively to each other until July 31." MTN, as Stones, notes, was one of the interested parties when Zain/MTC prevailed with its acquisition of Celtel International.

Given my own contention that groups such as Zain are more likely to be in buying mode than selling mode these days, the big question for me around all of this is why Zain would be looking to sell its African unit. Let's look at evidence to support the notion that this would be a strange move:

  • Celtel operators across Africa were the subject of an expensive rebranding exercise only last year - surely quite wasteful if there was never a long-term plan to stay in these markets.
  • As Lesley Stones notes, as recently as November, Zain Africa CEO Chris Gabriel said the company "planned to be the acquisitor rather than the acquisition in an inevitable consolidation of telecoms players."
  • As Stones argues, Zain CEO Saad Al Barrak has not hinted at any plans to sell, instead saying only a month ago that the group has an "unwavering commitment to reach our 2011 target of being a top-10 global mobile operator", an aim that would be made impossible by the shedding of a major chunk of its business.
  • Zain’s commitment to Africa saw it launch a network in Ghana as recently as December.
  • Zain has announced plans to introduce mobile financial services for Africa's unbanked via cellphones in several countries this year.
Bearing all of this in mind, the whole thing does feel rather implausible. The (non?) story seems to originate from a single article in a Kuwaiti newspaper. As Lesley Stones notes, rumours of the sale may simply be untrue. Watch this space, I guess.

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