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Airtel reconsiders its African market approach

Three years since Bharti Airtel, one of the world’s top telecommunications companies by subscribers, began operating in Africa, it has had a rough ride on the continent, according to a Pyramid Research analyst.

Airtel began its African operations following its acquisition of Zain’s assets in a deal worth US$10.7 billion.

“In the beginning, the plan was to approach the African market with the same strategy that had made the company a huge success in India – namely the ‘minute-factory’ model, which is based on expectations of high demand elasticity for voice use,” said Atul Arora, Pyramid Research’s associate analyst.

“Since then, it is still waiting for its business to turn profitable after massive investments into the continent,” Arora said.

According to the analyst, Airtel’s primary assumption appeared to have been that aggressive reductions in tariffs could be offset by the total revenue generated by an almost unbounded growth in use (elasticity).

Moreover, the firm assumed that by outsourcing its network management and IT backbone and consolidating operations where feasible, it could expand its margins.

“However, this has been a much slower process than expected, and the company looks set to miss its target of US$5 billion in revenue and US$2 billion in EBITDA ( Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortisation) by the end of next month,” Arora noted.

“Why does Airtel find itself in this situation?” the analyst queried.

In Arora’s opinion, the company discovered that dramatically reducing tariffs did not increase usage per SIM card, but rather added new subscriptions to the network.

“This implies a much lower ceiling for potential saturation because the unfavorable degree of urbanisation in Africa means that new subscriptions are more costly to acquire than the previous ones.

“Second, in addition to these counter-intuitive marginal cost dynamics, operational expenditures are no cheaper because of the lack of a skilled local workforce, expensive maintenance of base stations due to volatile power availability, and additional security requirements,” Arora argued.

Although African markets lend themselves to economies of scale across some common operations, the analyst further noted that juggling the regulatory necessities, economic and political conditions, and the market realities of 17 countries has been more than trivial.

Because the African market has been a lot less responsive to the minute-factory concept, Airtel has had to settle for keeping its head above water for now, Arora said.

“It has tried to balance the steady decline of ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) in its African operations (which Airtel says it is partly responsible for due to its central role in the price wars in multiple markets) with an impressive 20 percent CAGR (compound annual growth rate) in its subscriber base since the end of 2010.

Although the EBITDA margin has not improved drastically over the last year, operating expenses per minute fell from US$0.044 to US$0.036, and the operating expenses per BTS ratio fell from US$210,000 annually to US$195,000.

According to Arora, Airtel aggressively outsourced its network management and IT operations and has reduced its nominal capital expenditure by over 54 percent compared to 2011.

In other words, it responded to declines in ARPU by improving its efficiency.

The question is: ‘How much longer can it continue to survive this whirlpool without drowning?’ the analyst queried.

As Airtel faces a critical juncture, Arora suggested two paths it could take: Either continue to cut prices and hope to expand the subscriber base faster than possible declines in its ARPU; or learn to make money from new services.

But, the analyst further cautioned: “We believe that the former approach is vulnerable to what we view as premature saturation in some sub-Saharan markets: While the actual user bases are much smaller than what subscription rates imply in many markets due to multi-SIM ownership, reaching new customers is increasingly a consequence of costly network expansions into areas of low density and limited infrastructure.

“The latter tactic, on the other hand, involves focusing on building upon non-voice revenue that has grown 65 percent in the past two years, but is still only 13 percent of total revenue.”

Data services, while starting from a lower base, are the next area of revenue growth for Airtel, and the company is positioning itself to take advantage of this change.

In the category of simple low-margin data services, such as mobile money and VAS, the operator is trying to catch up with its competitors.

In the case of more advanced networks, it currently boasts 5,527 3G sites, 34 percent of its total in Africa, and aggressively markets 3.75G capabilities in multiple countries.

Still, the presence of 3G networks and the availability of data services do not automatically translate into adoption or higher margin subscriptions: Quality of service, availability of affordable-yet-exclusive data-centric devices, and a consistently positive brand image will be essential to turning these operations into revenue.

Currently, Airtel is closely associated with low-cost services and freebies, whereas data services users will be image-conscious early adopters that desire to be associated with premium brands.

“Early efforts to address this issue, especially with youth programmes, are certainly visible, but they will not pay off overnight,” the analyst added.

According to Arora, it appears that Airtel has come to terms with the brutal challenges of sub-Saharan African markets and is moving in the right direction.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether it will be able to keep its head above water long enough to complete a shift in identity and diversify its revenue streams.

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