Kuwait: Kuwaiti telecom group Zain has agreed to sell its African assets to Bharti Airtel Ltd, India’s biggest wireless operator, Kuwait’s state news agency Kuna reported on Sunday. The deal, valued at $10.7 billion (around Rs50,000 crore), marks Bharti’s third attempt to enter the African continent.
The deal is one of the biggest cross-border transactions in West Asia in years and a turning point in the long-running saga of the third biggest telecom operator in the region.
Breakthrough: Bharti Airtel chairman Sunil Mittal. Harikrishna Katragadda/ Mint
Also See Zain: The Deal Story (Graphics)
Zain’s board accepted an offer by Bharti Airtel to purchase most of its African assets, according to a person familiar with the matter. Zain said in a statement to the Kuwait bourse earlier that its board would meet to discuss an offer for its African assets, excluding Sudan and Morocco.
In New Delhi, Bharti Airtel’s spokesperson declined to comment, but a senior company executive who didn’t want to be named confirmed the transaction and said Bharti would issue a statement to the stock exchanges on Monday.
Bharti’s chairman and biggest shareholder Sunil Mittal is seeking to enter Africa, one of the world’s fastest growing telecommunications markets, as competition intensifies on his home turf. His company failed last year to buy MTN Group Ltd for around $23 billion, its second attempt to take over the South African firm.
“The Indian market is moving towards saturation and it’s important for mobile phone companies to look at emerging markets such as Africa for growth,” said R.K. Gupta, portfolio manager and managing director at Taurus Asset Management in New Delhi. “My only worry is that there is this dangerous trend of Indian companies trying to buy overseas assets at any cost.”
He added: “If you get a company at cheap valuation or fair cost it’s okay, but if you pay aggressively it’s going to affect profitability for years.”
Bharti and MTN called off merger talks on 30 September, scrapping a transaction that would have been the world’s biggest cross-border deal last year. Bharti said the structure of the deal failed to get approval from the South African government.
Bharti faces mounting competition in its home market. The company has slashed call rates to as little as 1 paise a second to keep customers after overseas carriers including Japan’s NTT DoCoMo Inc. and Norway’s Telenor ASA entered the Indian market with cut-price plans.
“The African market is an attractive market as the next round of growth will clearly come from this continent,” said Romal Shetty, executive director and head of telecom practice at professional services firm KPMG. “While the Indian market is still promising, the next 18-24 months would see a lot of pain for Indian telecom operators.”
“Bharti is diversifying its risks. The only risk at this point of time is how expensive the Zain deal is and what the payout (is) for the acquisition,” Shetty added.
In October, Akhil Gupta, deputy group chief executive officer at the Indian mobile operator’s parent, said Bharti would look at buying a stake in Zain if there was an opportunity. Last month, Bharti agreed to buy 70% of Bangladesh’s Warid Telecom for an initial investment of $300 million.
It also set up a new unit to drive its foreign expansion, focused on opportunities in emerging markets where it can replicate its low-price, high-volume model.
The Kuwaiti bourse suspended trading in Zain shares before the open but optimism that the deal would be approved sparked a rally in Kuwaiti shares, pushing the benchmark index up 1.8%, its biggest gain in six months.
“If the transaction values the African operations at $10.7 billion, it would be a nice premium,” said analyst Simon Simonian at investment bank Shuaa Capital. “We expect Zain to pay a special dividend to shareholders from the proceeds.”
Zain shares have soared 23% in the last week, giving the company a market value of 4.64 billion Kuwaiti dinars (Rs74,400 crore).
For Zain, the sale of its African positions would mark a strategic reversal that saw the local player rise to international status and then revert to that of a regional player. Zain has spent at least $12 billion to expand in Africa since 2005.
Zain’s expansion from Burkina Faso to Zambia and its ubiquitous logo has transformed it into a symbol of national pride synonymous with Kuwait’s faltering aspirations to diversify its economy beyond the oil sector.
“Zain grew a little bit too fast and was facing some growing pains in the past two years,” Simonian said.
Analysts have pointed to Zain’s underperforming assets in Nigeria and Kenya as a burden on the group, but said its large presence in sub-Saharan Africa harboured valuable growth. Africa represents around 62% of Zain’s 64.7 million customers but only 15% of the groups’s net profit. Zain operates in 24 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Nigeria.
The group pulled back from an expansion spree in 2009 and rejected an offer from France’s Vivendi SA for its African assets. It then halted talks to sell the assets to appease potential buyers of a 46% stake in the parent company.
A consortium of Asian investors has been trying to buy the 46% stake from Kuwaiti family conglomerate Kharafi Group for 2 dinars per share, or about $13.7 billion, although selling the African operations would likely end that initiative.
In one indication of an imminent deal, Zain last week appointed Nabil bin Salama as the firm’s chief executive, replacing Saad al-Barrak, seen as the driving force behind the growth into 23 countries across Africa and West Asia.
Barrak resigned earlier this month amid uncertainty about the fate of the sale of the parent company’s stake.
Last May, Zain announced a rare cut of 2,000 jobs from its workforce of 15,500, signalling that the heyday of expansion might be over.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
Eman Goma of Reuters, Fiona MacDonald of Bloomberg and Satish John of Mint contributed to this story.