In a politically divided country with a terrain ranging from parched savannah to lush mountain forests, a vibrant telecoms sector might not be the first industry that springs to mind. But that is precisely what is being witnessed in Côte d’Ivoire.

Since its inception in the country in 1996, the Global System for Mobile (GSM) communications market has grown rapidly and counts on market penetration of about 27% – about five million of Côte d’Ivoire’s estimated 18 million people.

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Telecoms players

The three main companies are MTN Côte d’Ivoire, Orange Côte d’Ivoire (a subsidiary of Orange, itself the mobile brand used by France Télécom) and the African operator Atlantique Télécom (operating under the local moniker Moov since June 2006). They were recently joined by a fourth player in the market in the form of Beirut-based Comium, which began operations in mid-2007.

Three additional GSM licences have been granted in recent months, and at least one new company is likely to commence operations within the next year.

A recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) group of 30 wealthy nations noted that in the Ivorian market local operators were “competing in ingenuity to offer the best solutions to their clients at the most competitive prices”.

Room for growth

“Generally the market has been excited by all these newcomers,” says Aimable Mpore, CEO of MTN Côte d’Ivoire, a subsidiary of South Africa’s MTN Group. “There’s a big opportunity in terms of filling in the gaps in coverage, which still doesn’t cover the whole territory, in the more remote areas.”

Côte d’Ivoire’s rugged western borders with Guinea and Liberia, which are among the most remote in the country, would seem like areas particularly ripe for growth.

Although Orange Côte d’Ivoire continues to hold the dominant market position in the country, MTN Côte d’Ivoire has been operational since late 2005, and has watched its subscriber base more than double in the past year from one million to more than two million subscribers.

Ironically, some observers say, the very robustness of competition provides substantial hurdles for companies wanting to do business in the region. “The challenges are many, especially that they issued so many licences in a small market (of just under 20 million people),” says Mr Mpore.

Despite connection charges in the country being lowered in recent years, they still remain relatively expensive for many Ivorians – the country has a gross domestic product of $1600 per capita.

In a further development, Côte d’Ivoire’s fairly convoluted telecoms laws are under review by the Ivorian parliament. The process, which observers hope will be completed by the end of this year or the beginning of 2008, is a development that many look to streamline and regularise the great potential of the GSM market.