Orascom Telecom will rebrand its four African mobile networks in the coming months as it looks to build a pan-African mobile presence years after having sold most of its businesses on the continent. Cairo-based Orascom was an early entrant into the African mobile market, but sold off much of its operation there when the company faced debt and liquidity challenges in 2003-2004. It has cautiously re-entered the market in the past year through a new subsidiary, Telecel Globe, which now runs four mobile networks.
All four, trading under separate names and logos, will soon be known as Leo, said Kai Uebach, the chief executive of Telecel. Leo means "now" in Swahili and "lion" in Spanish and Latin. "We are going for a consistent regional brand and the intention is having something that is fresh, like Africa, a living brand," he said. "It will be a brand that is modern, part of a state of the art, lifestyle-focused network."
As part of the rebranding, Orascom will also move toward offering common services to customers using each network. Zain, a Kuwaiti regional operator, has had considerable success in Africa through its 'One Network' service, which treats customers across the 16 countries as if they are on a single network. "Obviously when you decide to build a regional or a global brand, there needs to be common features, there needs to be a common feel," Mr Uebach said.
While regional operators like South Africa's MTN and Zain have built large operations targeting Africa's major markets, Telecel is focusing on small countries with low levels of telecommunications investment. It owns networks in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Burundi and the Central African Republic. In the coming year, the African telecoms market is set for its most significant shake-up of the decade. MTN, its largest network, is likely to merge with Bharti, one of India's largest mobile operators, creating one of the world's largest telecoms companies, and setting a major precedent for cross-border mergers in emerging markets.
And Zain, which acquired its African networks in 2005 from the Sudanese-born telecoms tycoon, Mohammed Ibrahim, is in advanced discussions with a number of companies on the sale of its assets in sub-Saharan Africa. While he declined to comment on Orascom's involvement in the Zain sale process, Mr Uebach said his company "will definitely be on the acquiring side" of the consolidation expected in the African market in the coming years.
He also said the company plans to boost the profitability of its operations by offering more value-added services, such as mobile broadband. Internet prices in much of Africa have remained far above the global norm due to a shortage of connections to the global network. But with a number of submarine cables connecting the continent to Europe and Asia coming on-line in the coming year, prices are expected to fall significantly.
And with vast tracts of the continent still not served by fixed-line telephone networks, mobile networks are expected to provide the first internet connections for a large percentage of Africans. "Mobile broadband is the next thing that is coming to Africa, and it will be another round of great advances in access, much like what has happened with mobile voice," Mr Uebach said. "We see our job now as mobile plus broadband, and our intention is clearly to bring these services to as many of our customers as we possibly can."