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Global investors are hoping to cash in on the infrastructure of Africa’s mobile revolution

By Yomi Kazeem

After a year of delays, a major Africa-focused telecoms infrastructure company has gone public.

Helios Towers, one of the biggest telecoms tower leasing companies operating in Africa (or towercos as they’re also called), has raised $364 million after listing on the London Stock Exchange.

The listing comes 18 months after Helios Towers first backtracked on a planned initial public offering amid concerns of political stability in its some of its African markets. Helios Towers has nearly 7,000 stations operating in South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Republic of Congo and Tanzania.

Helios Towers was founded in 2009 with a $350 million backing by London-founded private equity firm Helios Investments alongside investors including billionaire George Soros and former US secretary of state Madeline Albright.

Eaton Towers and IHS Towers also backtracked on planned IPOs last year. For its part, IHS Towers, the largest towerco in Africa, postponed a planned New York IPO citing Nigeria’s elections while Eaton Towers postponed a listing reportedly slated for London amid concerns over lowered valuations. Both companies have since resorted to other funding avenues: Bloomberg reports IHS has raised $1.3 billion in debt financing while Eaton Towers sold its business to American Tower for $1.85 billion in May.

Phone companies continue to enjoy growth across Africa (the total mobile subscriber base in the region is projected to surpass 600 million by 2025), towercos who provide core infrastructure support by developing and leasing tower space are also set for sustained momentum.

“They are all fundamentally sound businesses. There’s a big appetite to build more sites [because] lots of mobile operators want to expand networks,” says Matthew Edwards, head of research for the region at TowerXchange, a tower-focused research firm. “All of the markets they [towercos] are in have got rapidly growing populations so they’ve got lots of runway left,” he adds. As such, Edwards says the postponement of planned listings last year signaled that towercos “could afford to wait” and were not “desperate” to raise additional funding through IPOs.

As telecoms operators jostle for market share by expanding their  reach and upgrading their networks, towercos—which currently own 39.3% of the estimated 158,000 towers across the continent—also stand to gain with thousands of planned towers already on the cards, according to TowerXchange.

But, like with most businesses operating in Africa, electricity remains a major challenge for towercos. As part of efforts to cut down costs, towercos are increasingly investing in hybrid power solutions like lithum-ion batteries and solar power. There’s a net upside for local communities housing towers given the possibility of reduced diesel consumption for generators and an accompanying reduction in emissions and pollution.

The size of the challenge of keeping lights on at major telecoms installations was recently laid bare in Zimbabwe where Econet Wireless, the country’s biggest mobile operator, was forced to install Tesla batteries at local network base stations after a power outage (and generator failure) in July resulted in a mobile money blackout for a day, costing the economy millions of dollars.

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