Facebook to buy 10% stake in telco unit of India’s Reliance Industries for $5.7 billion

BENGALURU (Reuters) – Facebook (FB.O) will buy a 10% stake in the digital business of India’s Reliance Industries (RELI.NS) for $5.7 billion, as the social media firm looks to leverage its highly popular WhatsApp chat service to offer digital payment services.

Facebook to buy 10% stake in telco unit of India's Reliance Industries for $5.7 billion

FILE PHOTO: A 3D printed Facebook logo is placed between small toy people figures in front of a keyboard in this illustration taken April 12, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

The deal will help the Indian conglomerate cut debt that has piled up in its expensive push to secure top spot for its Jio Infocomm telecom business.

Facebook’s investment will make it the largest minority shareholder in Jio Platforms Ltd, Jio said bit.ly/34Wzy1a in a statement on Wednesday, putting the enterprise value of the business at around $66 billion. Jio Platforms holds a host of Reliance’s digital assets including Jio Infocomm.

WhatsApp is trying to secure approval to roll out its digital payment service in India, which will see it compete in a crowded market with the likes of Google Pay (GOOGL.O) and Paytm. The approval to expand beyond the beta launch hasn’t come through yet, a Facebook spokesman said.

The messaging service has 400 million users in India, its biggest market, reaching nearly 80% of smartphone users in the country. The deal will also help the social media giant leverage WhatsApp here to partner with Reliance’s e-commerce marketplace JioMart, that connects small businesses to customers.

“(India) is in the middle of a major digital transformation and organizations like Jio have played a big part in getting hundreds of millions of Indian people and small businesses online,” Facebook founder CEO Mark Zuckerberg said www.facebook.com/zuck in a post.

For Reliance, whose debt pile swelled to more than $40 billion as of September, the partnership will bring in much needed funds to make good on its promise to cut net debt to zero by March 2021.

Reliance Industries, controlled by billionaire Mukesh Ambani, is also set to sell a fifth of its oil and chemical refining business to Saudi Aramco for roughly $15 billion, and a stake in its telecom tower assets to Canadian private equity firm Brookfield Asset Management for over $3 billon.

While Jio has become the country’s largest wireless operator within about three years of its launch, Mumbai-headquartered Reliance has also rapidly expanded its retail business, which now has over 10,000 stores selling groceries, consumer electronics and apparel.

Revenue at these two businesses together jumped more than 25% in the December quarter.

Last month, Financial Times reported that Facebook was in talks for a 10% stake in Jio but the talks were halted due to global travel bans amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Jio said Morgan Stanley was the financial adviser on the deal. AZB & Partners, and Davis Polk & Wardwell were counsels.

Reporting by Bhargav Acharya in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru and Katie Paul in San Francisco; Writing by Sayantani Ghosh; Editing by Ramakrishnan M & Shri Navaratnam

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