Airtel Challenges Safaricom Supremacy in Money-Transfer

Airtel Networks Kenya Ltd., which is targeting a share of Kenya’s mobile-money transfer business, asked the country’s competition authority to probe Safaricom Ltd. for allegedly abusing its market-leading position.

Airtel is teaming up with Equity Bank Ltd., the country’s biggest lender by market value, to begin operating a mobile-phone banking product in July. The service will compete with Safaricom’s M-Pesa, a system that enables users to send money by mobile-phone and generated 26.6 billion shillings ($303 million) of revenue for the company last year.

Safaricom, in which Vodafone Plc has a 40 percent stake, had 78 percent of the voice market, 96 percent of text messaging and 74 percent of mobile-data and Internet traffic in the final quarter of 2013, according to data from the state-run Communications Authority of Kenya. Airtel, Kenya’s second-biggest mobile operator after Safaricom, recorded 11 percent, 3 percent and 15 percent in those categories, respectively.

“Currently there is a dominant player in the market and this makes it impossible for Kenyans to make a choice,” Airtel Kenya Chief Executive Officer Adil El Youssefi said in an interview on May 25 in the capital, Nairobi.

Since cash transfers still account for 98 percent of total transactions in Kenya, it’s impossible for any mobile-money entity to be a dominant player in the payments market, said Safaricom Corporate Affairs Director Nzioka Waita in a May 28 e-mailed response to questions. “I would hesitate to rush to any empirically unsubstantiated assumptions about dominance or abuse therefore,” he said.

Dominant Players

The Competition Authority of Kenya has received the complaint filed by Airtel, spokeswoman Elizabeth Ntonjira said in an e-mail. Telecommunications is among several industries being examined for possible abuse of dominance in a probe that is expected to be completed by July, Francis Kariuki, director-general of the competition authority, said last month.

The East African nation of 43 million people had 31.3 million mobile-phone subscriptions by the end of last year, of which Safaricom accounted for 68 percent, Airtel 17 percent, Essar Group’s yuMobile 9 percent and Telkom Kenya Ltd. 7 percent; all of which are based in Nairobi.

Under Kenyan law, a company that controls at least half of the trade of services or goods is considered dominant, a position that can be abused through practices including unfair pricing or restricting market access. A conviction of abusing a dominant market position can lead to a five-year prison term and as much as a 10 million-shilling fine, according to the Competition Act.

Situation Change

“Hopefully by this July the situation will change,” said El Youssefi.

In April, Kenya’s telecommunications regulator granted approval for Safaricom and Airtel to buy yuMobile and it’s considering awarding licenses for at least three more telecommunications companies. Orange SA has said it may cut its holdings in Kenya, where it owns 70 percent of Telkom Kenya.

Safaricom’s shares traded unchanged at 12.80 shillings by 10:48 a.m. today in Nairobi, halting a two-day losing streak and putting its gain this year at 18 percent.

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