Ivory Coast to invest $165 mln to expand fiber optic network

ABIDJAN, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast will invest 100 billion CFA francs ($165.39 million) to lay an additional 5,000 km (3,100 miles) of fiber optic cables as it seeks to expand its nascent digital economy, a senior communications ministry official said on Thursday.

French-speaking West Africa’s largest economy already has 622 km of fiber optic cables with another 1,400 km to be installed by mid-2016, said Andre Augustin Apete, chief staff at the technology, information and communications ministry.

The new investment would cover the next phase of the network’s expansion.

“Tenders have been launched. We are in the awarding phase and by the end of January, the companies will begin working,” he said, adding that U.S., Chinese, French and South African companies had submitted bids.

Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa grower, is emerging from a decade of political turmoil that ended in a 2011 civil war. An ambitious strategy of heavy investment in infrastructure has helped push economic growth to around 9 percent over the past four years, among the highest rates in Africa.

As the economy has grown, Ivory Coast had seen a boom in digital transactions, which now total some 10 billion CFA francs per day driven by mobile banking and new online shopping options.

“I don’t think all our banks put together are doing as much,” Apete said.

The government’s efforts to foster growth in the sector, including the project to expand the fiber optic network, were expected to create new jobs in the digital economy, which already employs around 150,000 directly or indirectly.

On the mobile telecommunications front, Apete said that Ivory Coast planned to cap the number of operating licenses at four as they come up for renewal in the first quarter of 2016.

Three operators, led by France’s Orange followed by South Africa’s MTN, Etisalat’s Moov, currently account for 96 percent of Ivory Coast’s nearly 22 million mobile subscriptions.

In June, the government said it was withdrawing the licenses of several mobile operators, saying they owed taxes and fees, and planned to merge them into one company controlled by a new majority shareholder.

“We are leaving this fourth place free in case a significant operator comes in tomorrow and says it’s interested. Those companies can then join with it,” Apete said. ($1 = 604.6200 CFA francs) (Editing by Joe Bavier)