Thursday, 19 September 2013

Is Glo right to be chasing Comium Cote d'Ivoire?

Globacom is reported to be eyeing Comium Cote d’Ivoire as a possible acquisition target, Agence Ecofin reported last week.

As with all these things, there are two sides to the balance sheet. In the deficit column Comium is reported to have debts of some XOF 60 billion (USD120.7 million). If Glo was the only interested party, then that would be a positive, but Airtel is also reportedly in talks with Nizar Dalloul, the Lebanese founder of the Comium Group, so it could still be a two-horse - or more - race.

However, on the asset side in mid-2013 it was estimated to have some 1.5 million mobile subscribers representing a market share of 8 percent. At the end of 2012 it was reported to have just 270 post-paid subscribers, the remainder being pre-paid.

It also has established network infrastructure, so Glo is spared the long delays associated with a new licence - something it will want to avoid given its experience in Ghana, where its network launch was much delayed. Having launched with a modern network and direct access to its submarine cable, it has still failed to dent the share of the major players. At the turn of the year Glo was blaming its resellers for its failure - a clear case of shooting the messenger if there ever was one.

MTN is the largest mobile operator in Cote d'Ivoire with 36 percent of the market, closely followed by Orange with 30 percent. Mobile penetration at the end of June was 79 percent.

The other potential target might have been the Libyan-owned LAP GreenN. In June its CEO Wafik Shater Khalifa was saying it had faced a difficult period due to crises in both Côte d'Ivoire and Libya.

He claimed that sanctions imposed on Libya by the United Nations had increased the Group's debt as it had to pay the government for its licence, its suppliers (Huawei) and its staff.

However the CEO was claiming it had cleared half of its total debt, and Libya had provided funding of some USD 20 million, which it turn has allowed it to pay the government XAF 15 billion (USD 29.7 million) for its licence. LAP's operations in Cote d'Ivoire remain relatively low-key, being ranked fifth by subscriber numbers at the end of 2012, with only the recently launched Cafe having a smaller subscriber base.

This is, of course, not the first time that Glo has looked at Cote d'Ivoire as back in 2009 it was looking at Aircom. Aircom had been granted a licence in August 2000, and went on to launch in January 2012. Meanwhile, in November 2009 Globacom obtained a licence allowing it to provide international carrier services for local operators into and out of the country.

Meanwhile politics is never far from the surface, and in September the Minister of Post and ICT (MPTCI), Bruno Koné was busy justifying his decision to award a 3G licence to Etisalat's Moov unit, having overridden a decision made by the industry regulator.

Of the five mobile operators, only three (Orange, MTN and Moov) applied for a 3G licence. Having considered the tenders, ATCI chose Orange and MTN, claiming that Moov had not fulfilled the required conditions. Moov however is willing to pay the XOF 6 billion (USD 12.1 million) licence fee, which Koné reckons trumps whether they can actually provide a service to the desired standard.

Nonetheless, should Glo proceed with an acquisition, it still leaves ranked fourth in a market with six players. This will be at a time when the perceived wisdom is that there are too many players in many markets, with three looking like the optimum number. Being fourth does not sound like a particularly clever place to buy in to, particularly if there is another market not too far away where any lessons learnt have yet to be applied.

John Summers
Africa & Middle East Telecom-Week