Under Pressure: Airtel Africa’s Manoj Kohli

As Bharti Airtel announces plans to merge its Indian and African operations, Manoj Kohli is rumoured to be up for the position of global Chief Executive Officer at the newly merged entity.

Kohli was headhunted by Bharti Airtel’s Chairman Sunil Mittal in 2002, and was appointed President of the company’s mobile services. Boasting a very eclectic 23 year career in a range of Indian companies, at times leading food, chemicals, fertilizer, and engineering projects, Kohli was well-known for his ability to manage teams and projects across the full-range of industries.

Through his signature hard work Kohli quickly rose through the ranks within Airtel, and was soon announced as the new Chief Executive Officer in 2007. Kohli headed up the company during the following years of stable growth, which pushed Airtel to the top of India’s mobile network market.

In 2008-9 Airtel started exploring the possibility of expansion into Africa, engaging in discussions to acquire South Africa’s leading mobile network operator MTN Group – with operations in 21 countries. Despite intense negotiations, plans to acquire MTN fell through with Airtel backing away from the table in September 2009.

In response, Airtel saw a shift in management dynamics, with Kohli being shifted slightly to head up the international business operations of the firm – and also being given responsibility for the company’s global expansion.

Shortly afterwards in 2010, Kohli’s role was to see yet another change following Airtel’s successful US$9 billion acquisition of Kuwaiti-run operator Zain, which held operations across Africa. Kohli moved to Nairobi, Kenya, and became the CEO of Airtel’s African operations.

With Zain having owned operations in Burkina Faso, Chad, Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, Airtel soon saw a spike in branch numbers as Kohli lead the rebranding of all of the Zain operations across Africa.

In a controversial move reminiscent of strategies employed in Indian expansion, Kohli decided that a number of key departments would be outsourced to industry leading companies. Reputed companies such as IBM, Ericsson and Nokia Siemens were charged with dealing with the company’s IT and call centres.

Kohli also drew attention for his human resources practices at the beginning of his African strategy by retaining some 6,500 ex-Zain employees, moving them into roles at outsourced departments. This won acclaim on many counts: not only did he ensure that the Zain employees did not lose their jobs – Kohli insisted that they should retain their Zain terms and conditions in their new positions – but he also succeeded in ensuring that African operations were staffed by locals, as opposed to shipping in a full workforce of Indian citizens, as such promoting the local African economies and preventing unemployment rises.

However, trouble may be brewing for Kohli, as the company acknowledges that its African operations have been underperforming – recording losses. While the company had hoped to achieve US$5 billion in revenues from the African unit of Airtel by year-end March 2013, it is now widely accepted that this figure will not be reached, partially prompting the merging of the firm’s Indian and African operations.

This restructuring may not see Kohli ousted for now, despite the African underperformances, according to the suggestions that he may be in line for the role of global CEO. What is certain is that he will nonetheless have to turn around the fate of Airtel Africa.

Posted in: FeaturedTelecoms

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