Helios Towers Africa’s plans for the 950 towers to be acquired from Airtel DRC

An interview with HTA’s Group Director of Sales and Marketing, Alex Leigh

Read this article to learn:

  • Why the transaction and the DRC are of such importance to Helios Towers Africa
  • Factors behind the the company’s strong operational performance in such a challenging market
  • What plans HTA has for the upgrade of the Airtel sites
  • What strengths HTA brings to the market

On 5th May, Airtel announced the sale of 950 towers in the DRC to Helios Towers Africa, signifying the operator’s eleventh tower transaction and second with Helios. The deal further strengthens Helios Towers Africa’s position in the DRC, where they are the sole towerco in what is known to be a very operationally challenging market. TowerXchange speak to Helios Towers Africa’s Group Director of Sales and Marketing, Alex Leigh to discuss the transaction and why the DRC is such an exciting market.

On 5th May 2016, Bharti Airtel International agreed the sale of 950 towers in the DRC (including sites under construction) to Helios Towers Africa. The deal marks the eleventh country in which Airtel has divested their towers with transactions closed in Nigeria (with American Tower), Rwanda and Zambia (with IHS), Ghana, Burkina Faso and Kenya (with Eaton Towers) and Congo Brazzaville (with Helios Towers Africa) and deals announced in Niger (with Eaton Towers) and Tanzania (with American Tower).

Helios Towers Africa, with a portfolio of over 6,500 towers (pro rata for the closure of the Airtel DRC transaction) has a presence in four countries; Tanzania (where American Tower have recently entered as competitors), Ghana (with both American Tower and Eaton Towers present) and Congo Brazzaville and the DRC (where they are the sole tower company operating). The transaction is Helios’ second major acquisition in the DRC, having acquired 729 towers from Tigo/Millicom back in 2010 and is the company’s second deal with Airtel, having previously acquired 390 towers in Congo Brazzaville.

TowerXchange: Congratulations on the announcement of the deal with Airtel in the DRC, why is the transaction of such great importance to the company?

Alex Leigh, Group Director of Sales and Marketing, Helios Towers Africa:

We already have a strong presence in the market with the towers that we have bought, reactivated or built and we see huge potential for growth in the DRC. There is a lot of foreign investment going into the country, including the construction of a new multi-lane highway and a new airport terminal in Kinshasa. As the city grows, the requirements for mobile and data coverage are going to grow. Dependent on which sources you read, somewhere between 15 and 20 million new mobile users will be coming online in the next five years, and there is already an infrastructure gap in the country.

We see our key customers having a strong willingness to invest in the DRC to meet this demand. As well as co-locating equipment on existing towers we have also built new greenfield towers for most operators in the country. Plus, with spectrum being scarce in the market, there is a requirement for lots of repeating infrastructure to meet demand. In summary, it is a very exciting time to be in the DRC.

TowerXchange: The DRC is known to be a particularly challenging market to work in from an operational point of view, however Helios’ subsidiary in the country has been performing highly. What can you tell us about the company’s success on this front?

Alex Leigh, Group Director of Sales and Marketing, Helios Towers Africa:

We have had strong performance across the board in all our markets and have implemented some key changes which have driven this. We are working to define processes and continuously improve them, in Africa we will always encounter challenges but it is how we learn from such occurrences and put in place systems to avoid future failures.

We have a new management team in place, many of whom are six sigma black belts hailing from the power industry. These black belts are training local talent to become green belts, developing skills and competencies on the ground. Management and training of partners as well as staff is also critical in ensuring effective operations. Many companies adopt a practice of putting in place service level agreements and then penalising partners when they under deliver – rather than helping them to better deliver. We’ve brought our maintenance contractors in a lot closer to the business and embedded them with the zonal managers in each country.

A big focus has been on improving emergency power; how should you put in generators, how can you minimise failures and what lessons can you take from failures? We have seen a reduction in fuel outages at many sites from tens to zeros; even at our worst performing sites we have managed to get fuel outages down to zero – using monitoring and data analytics to make informed decisions and drive continuous improvement.

TowerXchange: What plans does Helios have in place to upgrade the 950 towers acquired from Airtel?

Alex Leigh, Group Director of Sales and Marketing, Helios Towers Africa:

We very much adopted a front loaded sales and operational planning approach in the acquisition of towers and have already identified key projects that need to be completed to improve the sites.

Whilst the first important step of the transaction is the release of capital to Airtel, the second step is to be quickly delivering quality of service improvement through operational improvements to the towers. We aim to have all the upgrade work completed within a 12-month timeframe and work will commence immediately.

In parallel to the upgrade work that has been done to deliver operational improvements to Airtel, our focus is on getting additional tenants on the towers, with a subsequent focus being on the rationalisation of duplicate networks.

TowerXchange: Why is Helios Towers ideally positioned to better manage Airtel’s network of towers?

Alex Leigh, Group Director of Sales and Marketing, Helios Towers Africa:

As well as having a strong presence in the DRC already, with good relationships in place with local suppliers and contractors we also bring with us six years of working in the African continent. In this time, we have obtained the battle scars which enable us to put in place processes to avoid downtime on sites. Added to this, our new CEO, Kash Pandya as well as other members of our management team, bring a wealth of experience from the power industry which is hugely important in a market such as the DRC where there is limited grid connectivity. In addition to our operational strengths, we also bring with us a strong balance sheet which underpins the company and gives operators the level of confidence they need in trusting their networks to us.

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