Why African Telecoms Are Scrambling For Subscribers In Democratic Republic Of Congo

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Written by Tom Jackson
Democratic Republic of Congo
Telecoms companies like Vodacom are interested in the Democratic Republic of Congo market. Photo – Flickr

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is rife with infrastructural and political challenges, but Africa-based telecoms are now engaged in a scramble for subscribers in the country. What opportunities are they seeing amongst the chaos?

The recent decision by the DRC government to issue 4G licenses in the country prompted a rush from mobile operators keen to build their subscriber bases. Orange was first mover, swiftly joined by Vodacom, and others will follow.

In September 2017 the government signalled further intent to build the DRC telecoms space and get more people connected by launching a universal access fund that will see operators active in the country contribute 2 percent of their turnover to help increase rural connectivity.

The authorities, then, are working on opening up the space. But what is so attractive to mobile operators in a country still riddled with problems?

Primarily, it is due to the size of the opportunity. According to the GSMA, the DRC’s 79 million people have 48 million SIM cards, meaning there is huge room for growth in terms of operator subscribers. With the granting of 4G licenses, that growth is likely to accelerate, having already stood as high as 16 percent per year recently.

The country’s ICT sector is a “battleground” for investors, given this huge unaddressed market, according to a recent report from Vox Africa. With signs of a more liberalized regulatory environment and a government keen to develop the telecoms space to promote growth, operators are increasingly keen to invest.

“The country’s telecoms penetration rate is still low, even by African standards, and fixed connectivity is scarce, which gives opportunities in connecting underserved areas but also providing wireless broadband access in urban centres,” said Thecla Mbongue, senior industry analyst at Ovum.

Orange and Vodacom are on board with putting money in as they attempt to reach these underserved areas. The shift in government attitudes is encouraging this.

As recently as 2015 the DRC government was causing alarm among telecoms and ICT firms after it hinted that a review of the country’s most recent telecommunications law might include reforms such as subdividing existing rights into separate licenses. That talk has melted away, to the point that Orange felt comfortable enough to acquire Millicom’s operations in DRC in 2016.

In fact, political will when it comes to the telecoms space has generally been strong, culminating in the recent universal service fund and 4G license release. The government identified the ICT sector as a key driver of economic growth as recently as 2003, and has been busy introducing liberalizing reforms such as building modern telecoms infrastructure and promoting IT education. It granted 3G licenses in 2012.

Mbongue, however, sounds a note of caution.

“The regulator is not fully independent. As a result, final decisions are often left with the ministry in charge of the telecoms industry. Over the past 10 years, the ministry’s actions have been negatively impacted by political interests instead of the industry’s interest,” she said.

“Elections are scheduled for either end of 2018 or early 2019. Should they lead to a peaceful outcome, the regulatory landscape might be at a standstill around that time, while the new government settles in.”

Mobile operators will wait with interest for the election results and see how the space is affected afterwards. In general, however, the situation seems to be progressing nicely. The DRC has been slowly rising in the World Bank’s ease of doing business rankings, while the country has recognized it needs to attract foreign investors to boost economic growth.

There is no discrimination against foreign investors in the national investment code, and the ease of doing business is likely to improve further after the National Agency for Investment Promotion (ANAPI) simplified new investments and ensured more transparent procedures.

The country still faces huge infrastructural challenges, however. The African Development Bank (AfDB) described DRC as “probably the most daunting infrastructure challenge on the African continent”. This is due to many factors including vast geography and relatively low population density, but there is evidence of progress.

This evidence, coupled with the massive addressable market for telecoms firms in the country, means we are now seeing a rush for subscribers from some of the continent’s biggest operators. Time will tell whether government will continue to assist in developing the space, but for now the likes of Orange and Vodacom are eyeing a new frontier.

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.