Airtel offloads more Africa towers

Bharti Airtel has brokered several more towers deals that will see it sell off 2,500 towers in Africa to passive infrastructure specialist Helios Towers.

Mary Lennighan

March 23, 2021

3 Min Read
telecommunications tower on mountain top

Bharti Airtel has brokered several more towers deals that will see it sell off 2,500 towers in Africa to passive infrastructure specialist Helios Towers.

The India-based operator, which provides mobile services across 14 markets in Africa, has agreed to sell its towers portfolio of 1,200 sites in Madagascar and Malawi via separate transactions for a total of US$108 million. The purchase price will go up by $11 million assuming a further 195 towers that are currently in the pipeline are brought to market over the next three years.

Subject to the receipt of the required regulatory approvals and satisfaction of other closing conditions, the companies expect both deals to close in or around the fourth quarter of this year.

Separately, Airtel has inked agreements for its passive infrastructure businesses in Chad and Gabon. It will sell the assets to Helios, once Helios has obtained the necessary passive infrastructure licences in each market, with a view to closing the deals in the first quarter of next years. The companies did not share a purchase price for the Chad and Gabon assets, which comprise around 1,000 towers.

As one might expect, Bharti Airtel said it will use the proceeds from the sale to reduce group debt, as well as investing in network and sales in the countries in the question.

“With these latest tower transactions we continue to demonstrate strong execution of our asset monetisation programme. Helios Towers has been a partner to our business in some of the OPCOs for many years and we look forward to further expanding this partnership with these new leases as we together seek to improve mobile connectivity and infrastructure across Africa,” said Raghunath Mandava, CEO of Airtel Africa.

“These transactions will also help to improve the mix of our debt and increase its tenor through long term leases, which are largely payable in local currency by our operating entities, while reducing foreign currency debt of the Group,” Mandava said.

Airtel has signed service contracts with Helios for an initial 12-year period, which the towers specialist says will bring it $1.1 billion in future contracted revenue. That revenue pipeline and associated earnings will enhance company stability, noted Kash Pandya, CEO of Helios Towers.

The deal is part of an ongoing programme of passive infrastructure divestment across Africa for Bharti Airtel; it has sold portfolios of towers in around a dozen markets over the past five years or so, brokering deals with Helios, American Tower, IHS and others. Telecoms operators in Africa began selling off towers earlier than their European counterparts, although the deals seem to have come in smaller increments, unlike some of the mega-deals we are starting to see in Europe now.

For its part, Helios is keen to expand its operations in Africa as part of its 2025 strategy. Last August it agreed to pay €120 million for 1,200 sites in Senegal from Xavier Niel-owned Free Senegal. It had aimed to close that deal this quarter, but with a matter of days left in the quarter – is now talking about completion in the first half of the year.

Once the Bharti Airtel and Free Senegal deals close, Helios will have around 11,500 towers, putting it close to its 2025 target of 12,000-plus, it said.

It is becoming a familiar picture across the world; telecoms operators ceding ownership of their towers in the name of monetisation, while specialist companies snap them up. It’s a trend that is not going away any time soon.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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