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Airtel is losing its fight against Safaricom for Kenya’s fast-growing mobile market

AP/Bikas Das, File
Chairman and Managing Director of Bharti Airtel Ltd. Sunil Mittal walks as he attends a press conference during the launch of Airtel’s 4G services, in…
By Omar Mohammed
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Airtel Kenya is engaged in a mighty battle against Safaricom for Kenya’s growing mobile market. The telecom company is struggling to put a dent in Safaricom’s dominance, but they are getting left behind.

According to new industry data from the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK), Airtel, part of India’s Bharti Airtel, the third largest mobile carrier in the world, lost 7.8% of its subscribers in the first quarter of this year, compared with the previous quarter, while its rival Safaricom, partly owned by the UK’s Vodafone, saw a 2.7% increase.

Overall, the market is still seeing incredible growth. Mobile subscriptions in Kenya grew to nearly 35 million users, a 3.6% increase from the last quarter.

Airtel has accused Safaricom of anti-competitive practices and argued those are to blame for its own inability to gain a bigger share of the market. But this argument is undercut by the fact that Orange, another competitor, saw its subscriptions grow by 12%.

On the mobile money front, Airtel lost customers as well during the first quarter of this year—3.5% compared with the previous quarter—whereas Equitel, in the market for less than a year, saw nearly a 70% increase in new subscribers, CAK data shows.

Airtel’s woes are not just in Kenya. The company has struggled to establish its footing in Africa since entering the market in 2010. In the first quarter of 2015, the company’s losses from Africa ballooned to $154 million, compared to $137 million a year before.

And in July the news that the company was engaged in talks with Orange to sell some of its subsidiaries on the continent, and that it was cutting 20% of its staff, fueled speculation that it may be contemplating pulling out of Africa altogether.

The company quickly denied this. ”We remain fully committed to our Africa operations,” it said a statement to Reuters, “and will continue to invest in its growth and building a profitable business and accordingly have no plan to exit.”

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