Assessing MTN and Safaricom’s Chances as Ethiopia Shortlists 6 Operators for Two Telco Licences

Weighing MTN, Safaricom's Chances of Success as Ethiopia Shortlists Six Operators for Two Int'l Licences

Six telecom companies have been shortlisted to compete for two full service Ethiopian telecom licences set to be granted this year.

BusinessDaily reports that the Ethiopian Communications Authority (ECA) has whittled down the list from a group of 12 operators which had submitted bids to venture into the country’s telecommunications market.

Safaricom chairman, Michael Joseph disclosed in an interview that up to six companies have been passed as qualified for the final stage of Ethiopia’s telecom privatisation process.

Image result for michael joseph safaricom
Michael Joseph, Safaricom Chairman

There are about five to six consortia who are qualified to bid. Bids are due to be submitted in April.

Michael Joseph, Safaricom Chairman

“We are working towards the final submission around March/April,” he added.

Kenya’s Safaricom is one of the six shortlisted telecom operators, with MTN, Orange, Saudi Telecom Company reportedly listed among the other five.

Telcos will now be required to submit their technical and financial bids by April 5, a one-month extension from an initial deadline of March 5.

Recall that the ECA had invited companies to submit their bids to take part in the privatisation process. The ECA had received 12 bids from operators including MTN, Safaricom, Orange, Etisalat, Telkom SA, Axian, Saudi Telecom Company, Liquid Telecom, Snail Mobile, Kandu Global Telecommunications and Electromecha International Projects.

The ECA had designated one of the bids as incomplete, meaning that only 11 proposals were considered for the next stage of the licence issuance process.

Looking at some of the shortlisted operators, we examine their chances of landing the two licences up for sale in Africa’s biggest untapped telecom market.


With over 260 million subscribers across Africa, MTN is easily the biggest telecom operator on the continent. The telco giant is present in up to 21 African countries including South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya.

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Together with Vodacom, MTN has led the way in the commercial deployment of 5G in Africa. MTN’s market appeal and financial strength place it in a vantage position compared to other mobile network operators in the race to win an ECA licence.

Forbes estimates the MTN Group to possess a market valuation of about $5 billion, a proof of the group’s massive budget.

ECA Director-General, Balcha Reba had in October stated that financial and technical capacities, as well as network security, were vital requirements to be considered by the authority during the process of selecting the best-qualified operators. MTN ticks all the boxes.

Over 70 million Ethiopians remain unconnected to any network, and this presents a potentially huge market for MTN to leverage. Currently catering to over 35 million customers across Africa, MTN’s mobile money service MoMo is a key revenue stream for the group.

However, mobile money constraints and political tensions in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region pose a big risk to investments.

Suggested read: How Civil Unrest and Mobile Money License is Hindering Telecom Privatisation Plan in Ethiopia


Kenya’s dominant operator, Safaricom is well-poised to be awarded one of the ECA licences. Servicing close to 40 million subscribers, the company’s $10 billion valuation is double that of MTN’s. Safaricom has hit that valuation due to the multimillion-dollar revenues consistently generated by its mobile money service, MPesa.

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The telco’s venture into the Ethiopian market is a statement of how it wants to expand beyond the shores of Kenya. In fact, Safaricom has already signed an agreement to borrow up to $500 million (Sh55.7 billion) from the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to fund its Ethiopia expansion plans.

But would Safaricom be willing to operate without being able to fully leverage its M-Pesa service? Maybe. However, if mobile money adoption in Ethiopia is anything to go by, Safaricom might not be too incentivised about pursuing a licence.

Ethiopia’s leading mobile money service, M-Birr only serves about 1.2 million subscribers – a meagre 1% of the 115 million people in the country. Chances are that even if Safaricom were given a free rein for M-Pesa, the service would not gather enough traction necessary to drive profitability.


Present in up to 18 countries, Orange is France’s largest telecom company. Valued at over $18 billion, the French telco possesses the financial capacity to manage a licence of this magnitude.

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Credit: Reuters

Its target for seeking to break into the Ethiopian telecom space are perhaps due to the immense market that could yield millions of dollars in voice and data revenues for the company.

While not as popular as MTN or Safaricom on the African landscape, Orange possesses the technical expertise to cater to the internet and voice needs of millions of Ethiopians. The company already launched its 5G network across 15 French cities last year.

That said, Orange may yet have reservations about the licensing deal due to the civil unrest pervading Ethiopia.

Saudi Telecom

Saudi Arabia’s leading multinational operator, Saudi Telecom caters to over 160 million subscribers across 11 subsidiaries in 8 countries.

Image result for saudi telecom
Credit: Arabian Business

Reports suggest that Saudi Telecom is sure to win one of the two (2) obtainable ECA licences, with some conspiracy claims that the government is “selling off its telecom sector to the Arabs to sponsor the war in Tigray”.

While these claims are unfounded, Saudi Telecom’s whopping $48 billion valuation gives it much more bargaining power compared to MTN, Safaricom and Orange.

Whichever way Ethiopia’s telecom licensing plays out, it is certain that the world’s longest monopoly which has lasted for over a decade is finally coming to an end.

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