From a state of some talk and little action a few years ago, in the last month or so tower sharing has become hot in African mobile communications:

  • Millicom announced in December 2010 that its subsidiaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania will sell 729 and 1,020 towers, respectively, to local units of Helios Towers Africa. Millicom will get $125 million in cash. Earlier last year, Millicom sold 750 of its towers in Ghana to Helios Towers Ghana.
  • In Nigeria, CDMA operator Starcomm is selling 80% of its towers to Swap Technologies and Telecoms, a Nigerian co-location and managed services provider. 
  • MTN Ghana is divesting up to 1,876 towers to a new entity, TowerCo Ghana, 51% of which will be owned by American Tower, with MTN taking the other 49%. American Tower is paying $218 million for its interest. 

The trend is interesting, but even more interesting is one of the key players. Who is Helios Towers?

We're glad you asked. Helios Towers Africa (HTA) was created by Helios Investment Partners (HIP), a London-based private equity firm that invests in Africa. HIP has some serious money partnering with it in HTA:

  • The World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC) made $250 million available to Helios Towers Nigeria when it was starting up in 2005, and recently put another $25 million in equity into HTA.

  • In 2009 HTA got $350 million from Soros Strategic Partners, Albright Capital Management, and RIT Capital Partners, organizations with some fairly hefty global cred. Whatever you think of his politics, George Soros is no dope, and Madeleine Albright was one of the sharper knives in the State Department drawer. The R in RIT stands for "Rothschild" and over the last three centuries the Rothschilds have probably made more good decisions than bad. (Backing Wellington against Napoleon - smart!)

Helios looks to become a serious player in African telecomms infrastructure and related fields. HTA just hired Inder Bajaj as CEO; Bajaj was formerly CEO of Reliance Infratel, a major force in the Indian third-party infrastructure business. And among its other recent investments, HIP just acquired a controlling interest in Interswitch, a Nigerian electronic payments processor with a presence in mobile payments.

 

It may not need repeating, but maybe it does: the development of Africa is not just about aid. In communications, people who are a lot better with money than I am think it's about investment.

 

 

For more on the topic, see "Mobile Infrastructure Sharing in Emerging Markets" March 2010.