(Bloomberg) -- Ethiopia has put on hold the sale of the state-owned telecommunications operator to foreign investors, opting to prioritize domestic retail investors ahead of listing on the nation’s new securities exchange.

The government initially favored sale of 45% of Ethio telecom to foreign investors, but canceled the bidding process in November after Orange SA announced its decision to withdraw from the race. Emirates Telecommunications Group Co. had also been said to consider a bid.

“There were bidders, but each one of them has left the process at one point,” said Abdurehman Eid, chief executive officer of the Ethiopian Investment Holdings, which is handling the process along with the finance ministry. “At the end, we felt it’s probably better to halt the process.” 

The foreign interest wasn’t to the extent Ethiopia wanted, he said in an interview this week on the sidelines of a sovereign wealth fund conference in Mauritius. 

The priority now is to expedite the sale of 10% to retail investors, who are showing a “huge appetite,” he said, adding that the focus on foreign investors will resume after listing the company on the Ethiopian Securities Exchange that starts operations in October.

Ethio Telecom is the biggest telecommunications operator after decades of operating as a monopoly in Africa’s second most-populous country. It had 74.6 million subscribers by January and booked 11 billion birr ($191.6 million) profit for the first half. 

Five other state-owned companies are lined up for listing on the ESX, Abdurehman said. Proceeds from the divestiture will be spent on slashing public debt. Enterprises controlled by the government raked up substantial debt over the years and subsequently struggled to repay it. Authorities lumped the borrowings under the Liability Asset Management Corp., which held close to 780 billion birr at the inception three years ago.

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