France's Orange has agreed to buy Cellcom Liberia from privately held Cellcom Telecommunications Ltd. for an undisclosed sum as part of its expansion strategy in West Africa.
The takeover will, according to Orange (NYSE: FTE), give it ownership of the largest of Liberia's four mobile operators and enlarge its footprint in the Francophone region. Cellcom Liberia has 1.3 million mobile customers and a market share of about 45%, just ahead of LonestarCell MTN. An Orange spokesperson said that Cellcom is "a very dynamic player with good growth potential" in a market that is still developing.
Although many African markets now offer little opportunity for subscriber growth, mobile penetration in Liberia (which is home to some 4.3 million people) is still just 66% -- a much lower rate than in neighboring countries, according to Orange.
Orange already maintains networks in the neighboring markets of Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Mali and Senegal and says the acquisition will be executed by its Côte d'Ivoire subsidiary, pending regulatory approval.
The French operator's other markets in West and Central Africa include Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Niger.
It has also been in talks with India's Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL) about acquiring businesses in Burkina Faso, Chad, Congo Brazzaville and Sierra Leone. (See Bharti Airtel: Out of Africa? and Orange Lauds Attractions of Airtel Africa Deal.)
Orange has previously outlined plans of increasing sales across its African and Middle Eastern markets by 20% between now and 2018 and reckons it can achieve an even higher rate of EBITDA growth through efficiency measures. (See Orange Aims for 20% Sales Growth in Africa.)
Those could include the sharing of network resources between different markets: Last year, Orange said it would monitor networks in a number of West and Central African markets from facilities in Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire) and Dakar (Senegal) in future. (See Africa's Data Dilemma.)
In a statement, Orange said it would contribute marketing expertise and technical capability in Liberia but that Cellcom's founders and employees would remain involved in the business.
One apparent concern is to maintain good relations with Liberia's government.
Orange has not provided an update on its talks with Bharti Airtel since they were announced back in July, but Guy Zibi, chief analyst at Xalam Analytics, Heavy Reading 's Africa and Middle East research unit, believes the French operator could also be interested in acquiring other Airtel operations in West and Central Africa, should they come up for sale.
Those could include operations in Gabon, where Orange currently lacks a presence, as well as the DRC, where a takeover would put Orange in control of about 40% of the mobile market.
Tracy Kivunyu, a research analyst with African Alliance Kenya Investment Bank, agrees with Zibi that Orange would give serious consideration to buying Airtel businesses in the DRC and Gabon if they became available.
Besides fortifying its position in West and Central Africa, Orange has been exiting markets in East Africa where competitive conditions and regulation remain unfavorable.
Orange sold its Ugandan operation to Airtel in 2014, while its Kenyan business was last year bought by Helios, a private equity firm.
The French operator said revenues from its operations in Africa and the Middle East rose by 6% in the July-to-September quarter, to about €3.6 billion (US$3.9 billion), compared with the year-earlier period.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading