Vivendi named as Zain suitor in Nigerian press

Nigerian newspaper Business Day has named French telecoms carrier Vivendi as the firm looking to build a deal with pan-MEA mobile operator Zain, after reports emerged last week that the Kuwaiti firm was looking to offload its African operations.

Neither firm has commented on this latest speculation.

Last week’s reports valued the deal at some $12bn and generated fierce debate among analysts as to the likelihood of such a development and the possible motivations behind it.

Business Day cited no sources for its information, but its report raises the interesting possibility that Vodafone may be involved, as the UK carrier jointly owns second-placed French cellco SFR with Vivendi.

Zain acquired African player Celtel in 2005 for $3.36bn, and has continued to invest and acquire in the region ever since – most recently exploring opportunities in Morocco in March this year. It has also broken ground internationally by establishing a pan-regional network, the use of which incurs no roaming charges for end users. The African portfolio was central to that strategy.

Last August the firm paid out for a major rebrand, that saw all of its African properties rebadged with the Zain colours, and it has always pitched its MEA empire building as the second step in a process that will ultimately see it expand across the globe.

If an outright sale of such a painstakingly built portfolio seems difficult to believe, some kind of share-swap is perhaps more plausible. Last month the carrier engineered a deal that saw the ownership of Zain Jordan given over to Palestinian operator Paltel in exchange for Zain being granted 56.53 per cent of the Palestinian player. A similar deal could be used to postion Zain for further expansion in more developed markets, which has long been its stated aim.

Thecla Mbongue, a senior analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media (ITM) was bemused by reports of a sale, although she did reveal that at a recent ITM event in Africa she had conversations with Zain executives who were grumbling about governance problems in certain African nations and the difficulties these created for firms doing business there. She also suggested that perhaps the firm is struggling with the low margins on offer in many of its African markets.

Other analysts were divided. One who has been tracking Zain closely and preferred not to be named described some kind of sale as “extremely probable”, adding: “Word has it that [Zain] have been trying to sell off properties. How many we don’t know but there is good reason to believe that this will happen. Zain is highly leveraged and financially constrained so there is a strong likelihood it will happen.”

Meanwhile Angel Dobardziev, an analyst at Ovum, said he believed it to be unlikely. “Africa is very strategic to Zain,” he said, “and it doesn’t look like it needs to make the sale. Zain does have a high level of debt, but it also has a lot of cash and, if you look at current asset prices, this is not a great time for a seller. But,” he added, “sometimes there are things that we don’t know about that are happening internally, and everything has its price.”

Zain itself played down the speculation, without actually ruling anything out. A spokesman for the firm said he was unaware of any strategic plan to divest the African operations, but pointed out that, in the current climate, anything is possible. He said, though, that such a move would not sit comfortably with “our stated plans to be a top ten global mobile operator by 2011″.

Senior Zain executives have said in the past that the firm is constantly running M&A simulations and is often in discussions that progress no further than the verbal. The firm’s spokesman did dangle a hint in front of the Informer, though, saying: “Attaining a top ten position does include forming strategic partnerships, which alludes to future possibilities…”

The carrier has never had any trouble raising money in the past, but even the wealth of the Middle East is not immune to a global financial crisis and, more recently, the firm has been laying off staff, hatching outsourcing plans with kit vendors and launching various cost management initiatives.

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