(Corrects Nasper’s CEO name in fourth paragraph to Dijk)
* Multichoice to be flush with cash, virtually debt free
* Analyts expect it to invest in internet streaming service
* Multichoice has 13.5 mln subscribers
* African pay-TV market seen growing to 41 mln
By Tiisetso Motsoeneng
JOHANNESBURG, Sept 19 (Reuters) - South African media and e-commerce group Naspers’ plan to spin off Multichoice, Africa’s biggest pay-TV business by subscribers, will free up cash for the unit to compete with fast-growing Netflix and other streaming services.
The group, which owns a $155 billion one-third stake in Chinese technology giant Tencent, unveiled plans on Monday to hive off Multichoice to help close a more than 60 percent discount in its share price to the value of its holding in Tencent.
This leaves Multichoice free to fend for itself in an increasingly competitive market where Netflix is already supplying thousands of viewers with original TV content and Hollywood hits such as “Stranger Things” and “House of Cards”.
“The intention is to basically have absolutely minimal debt going to Multichoice to provide them with flexibility to make any strategic move they want to make,” said Naspers’ chief executive Bob van Dijk. “We’re not going to suck any cash out of Multichoice.”
Although streaming is still rare on a continent hobbled by slow internet speeds, reaching fewer than 2 million of sub-Saharan Africa’s billion citizens, it is increasingly challenging more popular satellite-TV services.
Multichoice’s fledgling internet-streaming service, Showmax, is betting a blend of Hollywood blockbusters and local content such as “Real Househelps of Kawangware” and “The Bachelor South Africa” will set it apart from rivals. It launched Showmax in 2016.
Naspers does not provide subscriber numbers for Showmax, but London-based Digital TV Research estimates it had 334,000 at the end of last year, fewer than half as many as Netflix and mostly in South Africa.
Multichoice had 7.5 billion rand ($503 million) cash at the end of the latest financial disclosure period in March, generated largely from subscription fees of as much as 809 rand a month from some of its 13.5 million households across the continent.
It did not give details how it would deploy the money but analysts expect it to scale up Showmax.
“I expect them to be quite a good dividend paying stock but on the other hand it is an industry that is facing structural change so I expect them to continue to invest in Showmax to defend the position,” said Renier de Bruyn, a portfolio manager at Sanlam Private Wealth.
Multichoice’s dominant position in most of its markets makes it unlikely to seek to acquire rivals.
Founded in 1915, Naspers has transformed itself from an apartheid-era newspaper publisher into a $100 billion behemoth thanks largely to cash flow from Multichoice that enabled it to pursue private-equity style investments in e-commerce platforms across the world.
According to Digital TV Research the number of pay TV users in sub-Saharan Africa - a region of more than a billion people - is expected to jump by three quarters between 2017 and 2023 to nearly 41 million, with more than half of that signing up for satellite TV offerings.
Over the same period, subscriptions for streaming services - which also include Kwese, Cell C’s Black and Vodacom’s VideoPlay - are forecast to grow more than six-fold to nearly 10 million.
“We’re quite confident. The combination of Multichoice’s reach, Showmax and DSTV Now cutting edge internet television services will provide unique and unmatched offering,” said Multichoice Chief Executive Imtiaz Patel.
DSTV Now is an app that allows Multichoice subscribers to live stream channels on the satellite platform.
The company has invested heavily in infrastructure that allows it to beam television content since its launch more than 20 years ago.
Video offering via satellite is expected to remain at the heart of video entertainment for the majority of Africans for at least the next five years despite a rapid uptake of video on demand offerings from internet streaming services.
The bulk of internet users rely on mobile phones to connect but hardly use their data to stream videos because of the cost. In South Africa, for example, a 1GB data bundle costs around 149 rand, a stiff price in a country where the minimum wage is 20 rand an hour.
The listing of Multichoice is likely to fetch between 9 and 12 times its $627 million annual core earnings, or EBITDA, valuing it at least $5.6 billion, bankers and analysts said and making it a blue-chip Top-40 stock on the Johannesburg bourse similar in size to drugmaker Aspen Pharmacare.
“We endorse this decision. Naspers recently raised 140 billion rand, twice the size of Multichoice, by selling 2 percent of Tencent and 33 billion rand from the sale of their Flipkart stake,” said Byron Lotter, a portfolio manager at Vestact, which owns shares in Naspers.
“Historically Naspers used the Multichoice cash cow to fund new acquisitions. They no longer need the cash from Multichoice.” ($1 = 14.9056 rand) (1 South African rand = $0.0670) (Reporting by Tiisetso Motsoeneng; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Georgina Prodhan)