Ethiopia has awarded a telecommunications licence to a consortium of foreign investors in what the government has repeatedly hailed as the ‘deal of the century.’ As the country struggles with internal stability, external analysts question how pivotal the contract will be. 

The finance ministry and the Ethiopian Communications Authority (ECA) handed the new telecom operating licence to a consortium led by Kenya’s Safaricom on May 22, putting an end to more than a century of state monopoly in the sector.

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The consortium includes UK’s Vodafone and CDC Group, South Africa’s Vodacom and Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation. It will set up a new operating company to start providing services to the 112 million-strong market from 2022, Safaricom said in a statement on May 24. 

Safaricom and its partners bid $850m for the licencing fee, senior adviser to the finance ministry, Brook Taye, told the news agency AFP. Overall, they are expected to invest over $8bn over the next 10 years. “This will be the single largest foreign direct investment (FDI) into Ethiopia to date,” prime minister Abiy Ahmed wrote on Twitter on May 22. 

This commitment “makes commercial sense,” says Ed Hobey-Hamsher, senior Africa analyst at risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft, but doubts remain over how successful the whole initiative will be. 

Not without hiccups

This deal has been at the crux of Mr Ahmed’s economic liberalisation agenda. “With the liberalisation of the telecom market through a fair and transparent process, the government enables every Ethiopian to access quality services at an affordable price,” finance minister Ahmed Shide said following the announcement. 

However, the tendering process has been far from frictionless. Despite the hype, the government failed to lure offers from multiple international companies as it originally expected, with Safaricom’s and another bid by South African MTN being the only ones on the table. 

“Telecommunications companies were unnerved by the lack of prior notification they received,” says Mr Hobey-Hamsher. “The ECA moved the goalposts several times, especially over pricing and the package of services being tendered.”

The now twice-delayed Ethiopian national elections approaching in June also have the timing of the whole operation raising eyebrows. 

“The timing of the licence award was almost certainly due to electoral considerations,'' says Mr Hobey-Hamsher. “The liberalisation of the telecoms sector is central to Mr Ahmed’s economic reform programme, but little demonstrable progress has since been made.” 

Conflict in Tigray 

While this may be a landmark deal for Ethiopia in terms of its unprecedented FDI figures, the tendering process has also been overshadowed by the crisis in the northernmost state of Tigray, where thousands have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. 

It is still too early to assess the degree to which the ongoing conflict will impact FDI into Ethiopia, but these political insecurities, combined with debt challenges and the Covid-19-induced downturn “add up to a very challenging economic picture for the country”, says William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the Crisis Group. “Given the very nature of the political insecurity problems, that will certainly have had an impact on the potential bidders.” 

The country’s political and business environment rank are a matter of concern for investors across the board. The rise of Mr Ahmed to the prime minister post in 2018 was initially met favourably by the international community. 

Greenfield FDI reached a record $6.8bn in 2018, according to data from foreign investment monitor fDi Markets, and Mr Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his initial success in stabilising the country and its multiple ethnic groups. However, things turned sour rapidly, with the conflict in the Tigray region once again bursting out in 2020 and the prime minister burning the political capital accumulated until then. 

“What we can say is that there is clearly a direct causal relationship between FDI inflows and political stability in Ethiopia,” explains Mr Hobey-Hamsher. “We definitely see greater numbers of environmental, social and governance (ESG)-conscious executives querying the overall political trajectory of Ethiopia under Mr Ahmed, and his authority to deliver his promised economic reforms.”

As the ECA says they plan to re-tender a second license ‘soon’, the government has a new chance to convince international telecom operators that Ethiopia offers business opportunities without stirring the doubts of their ESG-conscious shareholders.