Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

How the law supports entry into the DRC telecoms market

Out-Law Analysis | 28 Mar 2022 | 1:04 pm | 3 min. read

The telecoms market in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is ripe for fresh investment, with large parts of the country underserved by existing providers. A law adopted on 25 November 2020 but only published in September last year can support entry into the market and the subsequent growth of foreign mobile network operators.

The current market

The DRC is populated by approximately 92 million people, with rapid population growth anticipated over the coming years. By far the largest city in the country is the capital Kinshasa in the west of the country.

Much of the existing 4G mobile network coverage in the DRC is in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Bukavu, Goma, Kolwezi, Matadi and a few smaller cities. Individual consumers buy data and airtime on a pre-paid basis.

There are many areas of the DRC where mobile coverage with fast download speeds is poor or non-existent. Short of acquiring an existing provider that operates in Kinshasa, the biggest opportunities for new entrants seeking to gain a foothold in the market are in the 20 or so medium-sized cities in the DRC where investment in networks has so far been lacking.

How the law helps new market entrants

The new telecoms law published in the DRC official journal in 2021 contains provisions that can help foreign mobile network operators (MNOs) to enter the market.

Network sharing

Significantly, the law provides that everyone in the DRC has minimum rights to data and airtime. To make this provision effective, the law has set up a compulsory network sharing mechanism.

The network sharing provisions require existing providers, or incumbents, to cooperate with new entrants over the use of their infrastructure. This means that, to be able to provide their services to customers in areas where telecoms infrastructure already exists, new entrants do not need to make significant investments in telecoms infrastructure in those areas.

The network sharing provisions allow, notably foreign, MNOs to focus their initial investments in infrastructure in the DRC in largely untapped areas of the country – specifically the medium-sized cities – where there is an opportunity to become market leader, while simultaneously looking to penetrate the market in Kinshasa and the other major cities where existing providers have a foothold, using the infrastructure of their competitors to do so.

More time to meet local content requirements

Another favourable development for new market entrants is the relaxation of some so-called ‘local content requirements’.

Until recently, a foreign MNO seeking to operate in the DRC was required to ensure that at least 30% of its share capital was held by ‘nationals’, i.e. Congolese people or legal entities majority-owned by Congolese people. Under the new law, a foreign MNO must still ensure that at least 5% of its share capital is held by Congolese employees on the day it is incorporated and that a further 25% of its share capital be held by Congolese but only within three years of incorporation of the company.

The introduction of a three-year grace period to meet the additional 25% national ownership requirement gives a new degree of flexibility to foreign MNOs over how they choose to structure their company when initially entering the market. It marks a significant shift in the regulatory framework of the DRC and signals a more aggressive opening of the DRC telecoms market to foreign investors in general and foreign operators specifically.

Other features of the DRC’s telecoms law

The telecoms law improves transparency. Licences to operate new mobile networks are subject to a competitive tender process in line with public procurement rules.

The law also makes it possible for new market entrants to operate as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) in the DRC for the first time. MVNOs do not operate their own network but instead buy airtime and data in bulk from existing MNOs and resell these to their own customers.

While the potential for MVNOs to enter the DRC market is likely to increase competition and lower consumer prices over time, MNOs can benefit from the MVNOs’ participation by securing additional upfront revenue that will allow them to effectively amortise their investment in their own networks.

In that respect the DRC is following in the footsteps of other mature markets in Europe, the US and the Middle East but is acting as a relative trailblazer on the African continent where only few countries have taken this step in liberalising the telecoms market.

An opportunity for new entrants

Some of the details of the new telecoms law are still to be set out in implementing decrees that have not yet been adopted by the DRC government. This means there is a degree of uncertainty over the precise requirements MNOs and/or MVNOs operating in the DRC will have to meet in the months and years ahead.

However, and whilst substantial investment would still be needed to build network capacity in the country, the newly enacted regulatory and legal framework create significant opportunities for new entrants to quickly become market leaders in medium-sized cities in the DRC and to gain traction in the biggest population centres such as Kinshasa.