Despite the economic strain caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Airtel Africa continues to grow as shown in its 9-month financial report [PDF] for the period ended 31 December 2020. The company’s reported revenue increased by 13.8% to $2.87 billion.

Almost half of its reported revenue was from its biggest market, Nigeria, while the East Africa and Francophone regions also showed strong performance. Its impressive revenue drove operating profit to $800 million, a 21% increase from 2019. Nonetheless, profit after tax declined by 21% to $261 million. Airtel Africa explained that the reduction was “largely due to one-off items incurred in the same period in the prior year.”

Data revenue continues to grow 

While voice is often the biggest revenue source for telcos in Africa, its growth is slowing. For instance, in Airtel’s latest reports, voice revenue only grew by 5%, compared to data revenue which grew by 24.4% and mobile money revenue which grew by 27.8%. The general feeling is that data is the next big growth driver for telcos and no one is betting on this more than Airtel Africa. 

Data revenue for the period ended December 2020 was $842 million, up from $677 million in 2019. The jump is not surprising, given that the company disclosed that in Nigeria, 82% of its total sites are now on 4G while 72% of sites in East Africa are on 4G. 

The expansion of its 4G infrastructure has led to an increase in the number of data customers in Nigeria by 23.6% and an increase in data usage per customer of 49.2%. In East Africa, data customers grew by 21.2% and the average revenue per user increased by 2%. Airtel Africa did not give precise figures beyond these percentages. 

But we know from 2019 figures that Airtel Nigeria had 15.2 million data subscribers. Some back of the napkin maths should put its Nigerian data subscribers somewhere around 18.8 million. 

New SIM registration rules in Nigeria may stifle growth

While Airtel Africa has 44.4 million users in Nigeria, it doesn’t expect that number to grow in the short term. This is because of a directive by Nigeria’s telecommunications commission to ensure that all subscribers provide their valid National Identification Numbers (NINs) to update SIM registration records.

Telcos are barred from selling new SIM cards until they’ve made progress with registering customers. According to Airtel Africa, “to date, out of Airtel Nigeria’s 44.4 million customers, we have collated NIN information for 21 million mobile customers (47%). To complete the registration process we still need to verify the NIN information we have received from our subscribers with the NIMC.”

“We anticipate that this will affect customer growth in Nigeria in Q4’21, but the potential overall impact remains uncertain.”

Olumuyiwa Olowogboyega | Author