It’s all a bit Zainy

June 17, 2009

The rumours just won’t go away.

Rumour number one: the Kuwaiti-backed Zain telecommunications group has effectively put its African operations up for sale with a reported price tag of US$12 billion.

Rumour number two: Zain is in talks with France’s Vivendi about doing a deal.

Zain has even posted on its website some of those news reports stating that its African business is under the hammer, effectively advertising a sale.

“I think we will know [about it] very quickly,” one source close to the parties said.

But it would be a surprise move, indeed, for the Kuwaitis to push ahead with such a transaction right now.

Only a few months ago, Zain’s chief executive Saad al-Barrak told the media that he had earmarked US$5 billinon for new acquisitions up until 2011 and that he wanted to beef up the company’s African operations.

Already, Zain is the number two mobile player in Africa along with Vodafone.  Each has just over 40 million subscribers on the Continent.  They are, however, way behind the number one operator, South Africa’s MTN, which says it has 100m subscribers.  And they could fall even further behind if the US$60bn tie-up between India’s Bharti Airtel and MTN goes ahead.

Add to that the fact that the majority of Zain’s African businesses are struggling to grow during the global economic downturn, and you have a reason why Zain might want to get out of Africa.

Tying up with Vivendi, however, by taking a minority stake in the larger French group, might be a more practical way for Zain to move forward and, in the words of al-Barrak, “to cement Zain as a top-ten leading global mobile operator by 2011″.

Whether Vivendi, which has operational control of Maroc Telecom, would want that, or could even afford all of Zain’s African operations for US$12 billion – if indeed that is a realistic valuation – is another question entirely.

Vivendi has about €8.3 billion worth of net debt and, according to some analysts, has only €1bn for manoeuvre without jeopardising its investment grade BBB credit rating.

An alternative might be for Vivendi, through its Maroc Telecom subsidiary (which owns telcos in Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Gabon) to buy some of Zain’s African operations.

When both Zain and Vivendi spokespersons declined to comment, they also failed to scotch the rumours, despite some Paris- and London-based bankers playing down such talk.

No doubt, France Telecom is following the situation closely. It chief executive Didier Lombard has increasingly turned his attention to Africa but has so far ruled out buying a pan-African operator.

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