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Facebook to invest US$5.7b in India's Jio Platforms

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Facebook will invest US$5.7 billion in the digital assets controlled by India's richest man, as the US social-networking giant seeks a broader foothold in its biggest global market.

[MUMBAI] Facebook will invest US$5.7 billion in the digital assets controlled by India's richest man, as the US social-networking giant seeks a broader foothold in its biggest global market.

The US company will buy about 10 per cent of Jio Platforms, becoming the largest minority shareholder, Jio's parent company Reliance Industries said in a statement Wednesday. Separately, Facebook said the deal would bring together JioMart, an ecommerce venture of Mukesh Ambani and its WhatsApp platform to enable people to connect with businesses.

The investment values Jio Platforms at a pre-money enterprise value of about US$66 billion, the Indian company said.

The deal with Jio would allow Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg to step up his expansion in a country that is rapidly embracing online payment and e-commerce as more people get smartphones. Reliance Jio Infocomm burst onto the Indian wireless telecommunications market about four years ago, quickly moving into a position of dominance by offering free plans and undercutting rivals. Working with Facebook would be a boost to the ambitions of Mr Ambani, until recently the richest man in Asia, who has been remaking his energy conglomerate as India's first titan of e-commerce.

"This investment underscores our commitment to India, and our excitement for the dramatic transformation that Jio has spurred in the country," Facebook said in its statement.

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Mr Zuckerberg has long aimed to roll out a digital currency as well as tools that let users make payments and buy and sell products over the social network's messaging services in India.

UNTAPPED POTENTIAL

With its half-billion internet users, the South Asian country is an alluring market for the world's largest technology companies, including Amazon.com, Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet's Google. In India, Facebook has about 250 million users, while WhatsApp has over 400 million.

While India will be a testing ground for WhatsApp payment services - currently in pilot - Mr Zuckerberg is also separately looking at the market for his crypto-currency project called Libra. Mr Zuckerberg has said that payments and commerce are a priority, representing a major business opportunity for the company moving forward.

After building a wireless carrier and a retail business, Mr Ambani has said he plans to rope in "leading global partners" before initial public offerings as he readies an e-commerce business that would rival Amazon and Walmart in the South Asian country.

The new businesses are likely to account for 50 per cent of Reliance Industries' earnings in a few years, versus a little more than 32 per cent now, Mr Ambani told shareholders in August.

Jio Platforms, a wholly-owned unit of Reliance Industries, brings together Jio's digital apps, ecosystems and the wireless carrier's platform under one umbrella, according to Reliance Industries.

Reliance and Facebook are exploring the possibility of creating an app similar to WeChat, the Chinese mobile messaging and payment service run by Tencent Holdings, India's Economic Times newspaper reported last week, citing people it didn't name.

Reports of the impending investment have revived investor confidence that Mr Ambani, 63, will be able to move closer to his avowed goal of reducing the group's net debt to zero by early 2021.

Negotiations to sell a stake in Reliance Industries' oil-and-chemicals division to Saudi Arabian Oil have dragged on for months, while the coronavirus crisis and a crash in oil prices have raised doubts if that deal will be signed.

The Indian company spent almost US$50 billion - mostly borrowings - to build Jio Infocomm, the mobile carrier, leading to a net debt of more than US$20 billion as of March 2019.

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