• MTN reported more than R2 billion in revenue from Syria in 2017 – a huge jump in constant-currency terms from that worn-torn country.
  • Voice calls – which are dying out – were actually flat compared to 2016, ignoring currency fluctuations between operating countries.
  • Meanwhile data revenues grew by a third for the MTN group as a whole, and by more than a quarter in South Africa.

Syria may be in the eight year of a bloody and destructive civil war, but that did not prevent cellphone company MTN from turning a profit there in 2017.

On Thursday MTN reported slightly over R2 billion in revenue from Syria in its 2017 results for the year to the end of December.

Although hyperinflation in that country requires special accounting measures to be used, that is an increase of nearly 15% in the constant currency terms used to correct for volatility in the variety of currencies in which MTN operates, and in the rand in which it reports.

In those constant currency terms, the Syrian operation also saw in increase in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation, to R601 million. 

The vital numbers from MTN's 2017 results

Revenue: R132.8 billion (up 10.2%)

Net profit: R4.5 billion (after a R3.1 billion loss in 2016)

Subscribers: 217 million (down from 240 million, but it keeps fiddling with the definition)

Final dividend: 450 cents per share

Its global number of subscribers had dropped by some 23 million, MTN said, although a change in the way it counts subscribers (which gets highly technical when it comes to prepaid) makes the comparison less than useful.

What can be measured exactly – and is closely watched by analysts and investors – is outgoing voice call revenues, and those were almost unchanged in constant currency terms. This was "encouraging", group CEO Rob Shunter said.

The continued used of voice calls was especially surprising because everyone, everywhere, seemed to be using more data in 2017 than ever before – including for voice-replacement services such as WhatsApp.

MTN reported R64.9 billion in outgoing voice revenues for the year, which made up 49.1% of its revenues. After a massive surge compared to 2016, its data revenues came in at R28.1 billion, or a fifth of the total.

In South Africa, still MTN's most important market, data revenues were up by a quarter in the year. But other countries on the continent were much more data hungry, with increases of more than 80% in Nigeria and Ivory Coast, and growth of more than 40% in Ghana and Uganda.

MTN's shares jumped nearly 4% in morning trade on Thursday, after it released the results, to around R128 each.

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