The fate of Gambia’s Comium is now in the hands of the regulator PURA – suspended for non-payment, it says it has paid up.

29 October 2021

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In September Gambia’s regulator PURA issued a suspension notice to mobile operator Comium for non-payment of a variety of fees, including its licence payments. Russell Southwood looks at the history of the operator and whether a recent rescue package will succeed.

Two Lebanese brothers launched competing mobile operators in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ziad Dalloul launched the more successful Africell (which attracted IFC investment in 2015) and Nizar Dalloul launched the less successful Comium. Africell launched in Gambia in 2001 and Comium in 2007.

For a variety of reasons, including bad management decisions and Covid-19, Comium’s operations have gone into a steep decline. In 2014, the Sierra Leone Government took over its operation there. In 2015 Globacom’s Mike Adenuga made an offer for the group (for a claimed US$600 million) at the point at which its Cote d’Ivoire operation was slipping into bankruptcy. The latter’s debts at that point were at a claimed US$25 million.

Comium in Gambia has limped on but it has not had either the money to invest in a 4G upgrade or to pay its tax and regulatory bills. The other three operators – Africell, QCell and Gamcel – have all made the upgrade. Frustrated by the unpaid bills, in September the regulator PURA stepped in and issued a suspension notice that would only be lifted if the outstanding bills were paid.

At this point, UK-based Monty Mobile stepped in to try and save the company. It has both put up some money and been given a management contract to run it. It has plans to upgrade the network and modernize its subscriber services offer, using its own products. It is understood that the company has paid its 2019/2020 licensing fees and has an arrangement with the tax authorities to pay off outstanding arrears by the end of 2021.

But the regulator has not yet removed the operator’s suspension and what is applied to one operator is not applied to another. The Government-owned MNO Gamcel also has significant arrears with the regulator but has not been suspended. Its finances are in a mess and there’s no clear way forward.

The market is dominated by Africell, which has about a 65% share of subscribers, with QCell on about 30% and the balance split between Comium and Gamcell. QCell is doing well and its owner is diversifying into banking and car sales. However, data prices from all operators remain high relative to income and 4G is not available everywhere.

The complicating factor for Comium is that there is a rumor in the market that PURA would like to license another operator other than Comium. As one industry source told me: “It’s like there’s another plan.” But as they say in football, it’s not over, till it’s over. So Comium has to wait and see what it’s fate will be.

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