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

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Zain Africa Speculation Watch: Episode 3

Zain-branded retail store in Uganda: needing a new paint job soon?
(image from Honeysun blog)

Telecoms media news sources, analysts and bloggers continue to be divided on the issue of whether there is much substance to the rumours about Zain looking to sell its African assets. Some commentary about this story, which, for me at least, popped up seemingly out of nowhere last week, continues to express a high degree of skepticism. The tone of some writing, meanwhile, seems to present Zain's desire to offload the former Celtel International operations pretty much as a given, focusing on quite detailed analysis of particular challenges that will have to be faced during the process.

Zambian journalist Michael Malakata, for example, writes in terms of how "Zain's efforts to sell its African operations" are likely to be hampered by problems such as a move by Econet Wireless Group to block the Nigerian element of the deal. Just as Malakata's article seems built on the assumption that Zain's exit from the African scene is actually going to happen, he also seems very sure that Orange/France Telecom is set to acquire the sixteen mobile operators supposedly up for sale - rather than Vivendi, whose name has been bandied about very freely these last few days.

Adam Durchslag of Reuters, conversely, seems more interested in examining the case for Vivendi being involved and gets a big thumbs up from me for making a pun of the word za(i)ny in the title of the blog post he wrote yesterday. I avoided the temptation to do so myself, but only just.

In his article, Durchslag picks up on widespread bemusement about how getting out of Africa would make sense in the context of Zain CEO Saad al-Barrak's recently stated ambition for the business to a top-ten global mobile operators by 2011.

With this in mind, Lesley Stones of South Africa's Business Day offers some useful thoughts on what could drive any sale, asserting that while Zain’s African operations accounted for 65% of its subscribers and 56% of revenue in 2008, "they absorb more than 75% of its capital expenditure, yet only account for 15% of net income." Stones states that "while Zain’s net income rose just 6% last year, if Africa had been excluded it would have been up 34%."

Adam Durchslag, meanwhile, considers the idea of a rather different kind of Zain-Vivendi tie-up potentially being on the cards, such as Zain taking a minority stake in the larger French group. If there is any substance to rumours of these two companies being in talks, perhaps that scenario is more likely than Vivendi simply buying operations from Zain. As Durchslag notes, it is worth considering Vivendi's ability to afford a USD 12 billion transaction. He points out that the French group has about EUR 8.3 billion of net debt and, "according to some analysts, has only EUR 1 billion for manoeuvre without jeopardising its investment grade BBB credit rating."

Durchslag then considers another possibility - that of Vivendi, through its Maroc Telecom subsidiary (which owns telcos in Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Gabon) buying only some of Zain’s African operations.

This raises of the question of whether Zain could conceivably be open to the possibility of breaking up its African operation and selling assets piecemeal to groups looking to fill gaps in their pan-African footprints - rather than a single transaction in which the whole lot are sold to a single buyer. Kenyan newspaper the Daily Nation carried rumours on Tuesday that Zain's Kenyan outfit "could end up in the hands of MTN Group, the powerful South African transnational." The article asserts that "MTN has for years been known to covet the Kenyan market", having previously tried and failed to buy the operation now known as Zain Kenya.

Writing for another Kenyan newspaper, Macharia Kamau considers MTN as a possible suitor, but spends more time considering the Vivendi option. In the spirit of Alanis Morisette, Kamau feels that if Vivendi succeeds, this would mark an "ironical" return of the company to the Kenyan market. Kamau reminds us that Vivendi sold a 60% stake in KenCell (the predecessor of today's Zain Kenya) in 2005. Any loyal Kenyan subscribers of this operator's services, therefore, are already on third brand name in a four year period. A further transaction could mean four brands in four years - that's almost as confusing as the regularity with which my favourite football club hires and fires managers.

Even this high degree of brand name turnover, however, would be trumped in Nigeria. Writing for that country's Vanguard newspaper, Prince Osuagwu, notes that if "Zain Group finally agrees to sell its Celtel Africa unit to a bidding French media conglomerate, Vivendi SA this week, the Nigerian operation of the company may be heading for the 6th... name change."

Osuagwu spoke with Zain Nigeria subscribers and reports some discontent at the prospect of yet another rebranding, feeling that some might switch to rival service providers because of "fears that the network might not catch up with competition after going through [the] image crisis that may possibly follow."

Thanks for bearing with me on another long-ish ramble through the Zain empire as I try to figure out whether this is a hot story, a non-story or something in between. There's bound to be a least one more episode in this mini-series. Don't touch that dial. No flipping.


  1. Interesting, see this link on Zain CEO's comment concerning the rumors -

    You would notice nothing is clear at the moment.

  2. Somze, thanks for that. It's interesting that all these rumours have stimulated this response - but unless I'm missing something, the email note neither confirms nor denies anything really. I once had the experience of working for a big corporation which was subject to takeover rumours. The emails we used to receive from the CEO looked almost exactly like that one.


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