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Vodafone, the world's largest mobile operator by revenue, continued to flesh out its strategy of tapping emerging markets on Thursday as it revealed plans to spend up to £1.35bn ($2.4bn) to raise its stake in South Africa's Vodacom to 50 per cent.
The move to lift its current 35 per cent holding would put the UK group on an equal footing with Telkom, South Africa's incumbent fixed-line operator.
Vodacom, South Africa's largest mobile operator, has 17m customers, of which 16m are in South Africa, with the remainder in Tanzania, Lesotho, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Vodafone has an existing agreement with Telkom to use Vodacom to expand through sub-equatorial Africa.
Like many of its rivals, Vodafone has switched its attention to the fast-growing emerging countries as the rapid pace of mobile uptake in the developed world slows and many markets reach saturation. Vodacom's customer base grew by 39 per cent in the year to June 30.
The move is the latest in a series of deals by Vodafone this year to expand its presence in emerging markets. Last week it agreed to pay £820m for a 10 per cent stake in Bharti, India's largest mobile phone operator, and indicated it was interested in further increasing the stake.
This year, it completed a £2.3bn deal for the 79 per cent stake it did not already own in Mobifon, one of the two main wireless operators in the relatively undeveloped Romanian market, and all of Oskar Mobil, the Czech Republic's third largest operator.
But Vodafone has also signalled its willingness to pull out of mature markets where it is struggling. This week, it announced the sale of its Swedish business to Norway's Telenor.
In general, analysts have reacted favourably to the strategy set out by Arun Sarin, chief executive.
"This is strategically sensible in our view as Vodacom is a high-quality, high-growth asset with many opportunities in the region," noted Robert Grindle, an analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein.
But some have expressed concern about the Bharti stake, worrying that the group could run into the same problems in India as it has in France and the US, where it is struggling to take overall control by majority shareholders refusing to sell.
Singapore's SingTel has a 31 per cent stake in Bharti and has indicated it wants to increase its holding. It is believed that SingTel has first refusal on a controlling stake held by the Mittal family.