Airtel Considering Exits, Stake Sales at Some Africa Operations

  • Rationalization could be completed within a year, Mittal says
  • Airtel will not completely exit the African market: Mittal

A man rides a bicycle past an advertisement for Airtel Ghana Ltd.

Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg

Bharti Airtel Ltd., India’s largest mobile-phone operator, is considering mergers or stake sales at some of its Africa operations as it looks to cut debt and make its biggest overseas acquisition profitable.

The moves would pare the size of operations in the continent and could be completed within a year, Chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal said in an interview with BloombergQuint at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Some of Bharti’s businesses in 15 African nations would be affected, he said.

Faced with an escalating price war in its home market, Bharti is looking for ways to pare net debt equivalent to about $12 billion as of September. The company has sold its Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso operations, as well as some of its tower businesses, as it reorganizes assets it bought in 2010 in a $9 billion deal with Kuwait’s largest mobile-phone operator.

Bharti’s African unit lost $91 million in the quarter ended September, compared with a $170 million loss in the previous year.

As part of the debt reduction, Bharti is also considering selling a stake in Bharti Infratel Ltd., its tower unit. A committee was studying whether the sale would be a minority stake or control of the tower unit and a decision could be taken in a month, Mittal said. In October, Bharti said in a stock exchange filing that it had formed a committee to evaluate options for its 73.5 percent stake in Bharti Infratel.

Mittal’s moves come partly in response to the entry of India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani into India’s wireless telecommunications market last year. Ambani stormed into what was already one of the most brutally competitive telecom markets in the world with an offer of free voice services, forever, and free data services for limited time.

Ambani’s Jio mobile-phone service will probably force the exit of the smaller players in a market with almost a dozen operators, Mittal said in the interview. Among them is Telenor ASA, the Nordic region’s largest phone company. Bharti was among those in discussions to buy Telenor’s India business, Mittal said.

Bharti, which will announce its earnings for the quarter ended December on Jan. 24, may have been hit by India’s currency ban, Mittal said. The Nov. 8 late evening announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that canceled 15.4 trillion rupees of the 17.7 trillion rupees in circulation may have an 8 percent to 10 percent impact on revenue. About 94 percent of Bharti’s India customers use prepaid phone connections and were unable to recharge their phones in the ensuing cash shortages that plagued the nation.

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