By Dawit Endeshaw
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Kenya’s Safaricom launched its mobile network in Ethiopia on Thursday, becoming the first private operator in one of Africa’s biggest telecoms markets.
State-owned Ethio Telecom has until now enjoyed a monopoly in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country with an estimated population of 118 million.
Safaricom Ethiopia activated its network and services in the capital Addis Ababa on Thursday after network pilots in 10 cities, it said in a statement.
Hours later, Ethiopian Finance Minister Ahmed Shide said his government had granted the company a license to operate a mobile money service.
Safaricom Ethiopia CEO Anwar Soussa said the mobile money service would take two to three months to roll out.
Safaricom leads a consortium entering the market comprising South African Vodacom and British Vodafone.
Its network was supposed to launch in April but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic and logistical challenges.
Safaricom Ethiopia said it plans to roll out a nationwide network to reach 14 additional cities by April 2023.
“We are optimistic that the technology and connectivity we provide will contribute to a digital future and ultimately transform people’s lives,” said Safaricom CEO Peter Ndegwa.
Kenyan President William Ruto, who attended the launch, said the mobile money license had not been agreed when he left Kenya’s capital Nairobi on Thursday morning.
Ruto said he “was on a mission to come back with a deal.”
Safaricom launched the world’s first mobile money transfer service 15 years ago, and the business, known as M-Pesa, has grown to account for around half of the country’s annual revenue. company.
The government announced plans to partially privatize Ethio Telecom after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, but said in March it had decided to postpone the process, citing economic difficulties.
Ethiopia’s telecommunications industry is seen as the big prize in Abiy’s efforts to liberalize the economy.
But Abiy’s efforts to open the economy to investment have been undermined by a nearly two-year war in the northern Tigray region that has killed thousands and uprooted millions.
Abiy and Ruto were due to speak later Thursday at Safaricom Ethiopia’s official launch ceremony in Addis Ababa.
(Reporting by Dawit Endeshaw in Addis Ababa; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Hereward Holland and Matthew Lewis)