Gambia's award of a fifth mobile licence raises transparency questions

Gambia's award of a fifth mobile licence raises transparency questions

Who or what is Giraffe Telecom – and why has the Gambian government granted it a license, making it the country’s fifth mobile operator?

These have been the questions on many industry observers’ lips since rumours were heard late last week that a new operator had joined Africell, Gamcel, Comium Mobile and QCell. However, it was only this week that Ebrima Sillah, Minister of Information and Communication, said he could “emphatically confirm” the issue of a fifth licence on an early morning radio talk show.

The Voice newspaper quoted him as saying: “Of course, there is a space for a fifth operator; it’s all good for the Gambian customers.” The minister argued that spectrum underuse was a factor and added that another important reason for the award was that, as he put it, “between 60 and 70 percent [of the company’s shares] are owned by ordinary Gambians who are doing business in this country”.

Despite these assurances, there is still little information about the new player and the process behind the award does not seem, so far, to have been very transparent.

Unconfirmed reports based on a Paradise Television news item last week suggest that Giraffe Telecom is backed by a Turkish businessman and that no one on the investor register, which is publicly available from the Gambian registrar of companies, has a history in telecoms operations or investment.

Other questions – involving infrastructure supply, marketing and rollout – also need to be answered, but these factors are arguably less significant than the viability of a new player in Gambia’s apparently overserved mobile market.

Mobile penetration in the country is over 150 percent, according to some estimates. Two operators – Africel and QCel – dominate mobile service provision. State-backed Gamcel has had a troubled history, including reports of requests for a government bailout in 2019, and Comium, as regular readers will know, has had problems paying its debts.

How, in other words, can a new player make money in a four-operator, high-penetration country that has a population of a little over two million?

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