The global economy regained some of the lost momentum during the year. While major economies benefitted from improving global demand, commodity exporting countries recovered on the back of a spike in commodity prices. Our Company experienced mixed outcomes in our key markets in Asia and Africa.
India, despite going through bold but disruptive demonetisation drive, experienced a reasonably good year with economy maintaining its growth momentum, outshining several of its emerging market peers. However, Africa continued to experience sluggishness in its growth rates, and adverse currency movements further aggravated the business performance across industry sectors.
Telecommunications continued to be an exciting arena. Rapid rollout of 4G data networks, sharply increasing smartphone penetration and fast proliferating mobile applications enabled internet to enter customers’ everyday lives in newer ways. The amazing pace of change was particularly visible in emerging markets like India that are currently in the middle of a giant leap towards 4G. This massive transformational change has catapulted customers’ mobile experience to a new high. The mobile phone has become the most powerful, empowering and transformational device. To be able to stay ahead of the curve during this fourth industrial revolution, your Company continues to digitise itself each day - its offerings, systems, processes, customer centricity.
India witnessed unprecedented market disruption following the entry of an extremely well-capitalised and aggressive new operator.
Its prolonged free trial offers created massive pressure on industry revenues and margins.
Airtel on its part navigated this extraordinary challenge with a well thought out strategic action plan and of course, sheer resilience. Amidst this massive industry shake-up, we managed to increase our revenue market share; to reach a lifetime high. Many small operators lost their bearings under the intense onslaught and consequently prepared to exit the market. The shake-up also triggered an industry wide consolidation process, which we believe could prove beneficial for the market in the long run.
The year witnessed considerable strengthening of our spectrum footprint both through buying at the latest round of auction and inorganic acquisitions. Besides completing the acquisition of spectrum from Videocon and Aircel in fourteen circles, we also entered into definitive agreements to acquire Telenor India and Tikona Digital Networks. With these acquisitions Airtel became the only operator in the country to have a robust pan India 2G/3G/4G spectrum footprint.
Our aggressive network transformation programme continued under ‘Project Leap’ during the year. With 180,000 mobile sites rolled out in the past 2 years, this is one of the largest network rollouts globally. Proactive rollouts during the year made Airtel the only operator in the country with 2G, 3G and 4G services in all 22 circles. With the launch of Airtel Payments Bank we became the first among the licensees to go live in the country. Early days of the bank are encouraging and with our deep distribution network, I expect the Bank to be a pre-eminent driver of financial inclusion and mobile banking in the country in the coming years.
Strategic consolidation of telecom assets remained an unmistakable underlying trend in emerging markets. While the transactions to divest tower assets in DRC and Niger and sale of Airtel’s operations in Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone finally reached closure in Africa, we also completed the merger of Airtel Bangladesh with Robi-Axiata during the year. Additionally we entered into an agreement to combine our operations in Ghana with Tigo to create the second largest operator in the market.
Operational turnaround in Africa gained further momentum during the year as Airtel Africa turned Profit before Tax (PBT) positive for the first time. Our strategic initiatives focused on distribution optimisation, network excellence and cost management resulted in resilient financial performance. As expected, Data continued to be a key driver of incremental growth in Africa.
Our reputation in terms of adherence to the highest standard of corporate governance and transparency received wide acclaim during the year when Transparency International ranked Bharti Airtel first in its list of 100 emerging market multinationals on corporate transparency and reporting.
Our philanthropic arm Bharti Foundation’s Satya Bharti School Program completed 10-years of operation during which it has successfully expanded the ambit of its operation through multiple initiatives focused on education for rural underprivileged children. The Program is currently reaching out to nearly two lakh rural children across 12 states through these initiatives. Besides its core education programs, the Foundation also strengthened its other philanthropic initiatives during the year; Satya Bharti Abhiyan (rural sanitation), Nyaya Bharti (legal and financial aid for underprivileged under trials). We also witnessed significant expansion in Airtel Africa’s philanthropic initiatives in the areas of school education, health, youth training and empowerment. Our flagship program in Africa, “Adopt-a-School” currently reaches out to over 27,000 children in 56 schools.
I am pleased to inform you that 2016-17 turned out to be a memorable year for me personally as I entered into two major global roles - Chairman of International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and Chairman of GSMA. While ICC headquartered in Paris, is one of the world’s oldest and most respected business organisations promoting the cause of global business and trade at various global forums, GSMA headquartered in London is a strategic global organisation representing nearly 800 global mobile operators and more than 300 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem. It also organises Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Shanghai and San Francisco.
Telecoms lie at the heart of today’s increasingly digital society and economy. As new generation of technologies and application innovations take root and industry structure get reshaped under competitive pressure, operators will come across new operational challenges, and more importantly opportunities. With our robust spectrum portfolio, competitive position and management bandwidth, we are well placed to take advantage of this rapidly changing environment to strengthen our leadership position even further
Sunil Bharti Mittal