* Sees cash flow rising 10-17 pct in year through March
* Bulk of excess cash will go to shareholders
* Annual core profits jump 24 pct for year ended March
* Raises dividend by 52 pct (Adds CEO comments, details)
NAIROBI, May 12 (Reuters) - Safaricom, Kenya’s biggest telecoms operator, expects its free cash flow to rise by 10-17 percent in its financial year ending next March, driven by higher usage across its products and services, it said on Monday.
The company said it would continue next year to return the bulk of excess cash to shareholders.
Safaricom, which is 40 percent owned by Britain’s Vodafone , reported a 23.8 percent rise in annual core profits for the just concluded financial year and raised its dividend by 52 percent to 0.47 shillings per share.
It has previously cited a lack of acquisition opportunities as one reason for paying out so much in dividends, although it has won conditional regulatory approval, along with the local unit of Bharti Airtel to buy Kenya’s No. 3 network Yu.
Safaricom gave the market a free cash flow guidance for this year of about 26 billion shillings, driven by higher demand for its services, including money transfer service M-Pesa.
“Voice (revenue growth) is still there. We are still not one of those people who are saying ‘voice is dead’,” Bob Collymore, Safaricom’s CEO told Reuters after an investor briefing.
Revenue from voice services, which accounts for 60 percent of the company’s total revenues, grew by 12 percent to 86.3 billion shillings, Safaricom said.
Non-voice revenue, from services like Internet access, short messages and money transfer, rose by 28 percent, driving the total revenue higher by 16 percent.
The company said it expected the growth to continue due to the diversity of the products and services as well as investments in the network that have led to quality improvements over the years.
“People are finding there is a relevance in the products,” said John Tombleson, the company’s chief financial officer.
Safaricom, which has 21.6 million users or 67.9 percent of the market, enjoys the widest network coverage in Kenya, east Africa’s largest economy.
Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) rose 23.8 percent to 60.9 billion shillings ($700 million) in the year ended March 31 from 49.2 billion the year before.
Safaricom pledged to contain cost rises to maintain the EBITDA margin, which improved by 2.5 percentage points to 42.12 percent, above the 40 percent average for top global operators.
Earnings per share rose 29.55 percent to 0.57 shillings, the company said.
The results were released after the stock market had closed.
Safaricom shares have doubled in the past year as earnings and dividends have increased and as Kenyan stocks have attracted more international investors.
$1=87.1000 Kenyan shillings Reporting by Duncan Miriri; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Susan Fenton