Portugal's experience with the crisis should be used by Angola
Angolan businesswoman Isabel dos Santos told Lusa that the experience gained by Portugal and the Portuguese businessmen in the last economic crisis should be used in Angola to define “a plan” to get out of the crisis.
“Angola is going through a deep economic crisis today. We are going through a moment that I would say is difficult from an economic point of view. For companies this is hard. This relationship with Portugal can be very useful, in the first place because we can share the experience that Portugal had when it came out of the crisis” said the businesswoman, in an interview with Lusa, on the sidelines of her recent visit to Cape Verde.
A businesswoman with interests in several and distinct business areas in Portugal and Angola, Isabel dos Santos underlines the Portuguese reaction to the crisis that in 2011 led to international financial intervention and the way the country went beyond its assistance period. But above all the way companies “reinvented themselves”.
“But more than companies, it is also important to share experiences even at the level of governance itself. In other words, to create a framework, a plan to exit the crisis in Angola (which also requested a financial assistance plan from the International Monetary Fund), because it is urgent that this happens”, she stressed.
“We entrepreneurs have a hard time to continue working and investing in Angola,” she admitted, recalling that the business bet in Portugal began over a decade ago.
“It was a different Portugal, not the Portugal of today. It was only a little before the crisis, that is, I probably caught the most difficult part in economic terms in Portugal, but I always believed in the resilience of the Portuguese economy, because I believe that Portuguese companies have this ability to transform, to adapt themselves”, she pointed out.
“I effectively saw that at the time of the crisis several companies were innovative. That is, not only betting on exports, but also on changing their business models. Obviously there were sectors that were badly affected during the crisis. In fact, the construction sector was one of them, but who can say that there is a lack of good construction companies and workers in Portugal today? Actually, I think there is a real estate boom,” she added.
Therefore, she upholds that the experience of Portugal, which “had to find a solution, to be able to get out of the crisis, to rebuild its economy” and to attract investment today, “all in a relatively short time”, represents “a very interesting example” for Angola, even because they are two countries with strongly interconnected economic interests.
Asked by Lusa, the businesswoman says she cannot quantify the investment she has made in Angola so far, as these are “long term” projects.
“I started working in the nineties and I can give you some examples of investments made. We invested and this was private money, it was not money from the public purse, there was no subsidy here, there was no state contribution. It was simply private investment”, she said, before pointing out some examples of investments in Angola in which she was involved.
“We have invested in Angola’s largest optical fibre network and we are talking about an investment of over two billion Euros (…) in the industry, in one of the most modern, cutting-edge cement factories. We are talking about an investment of over 400 million dollars [362 million Euros],(…) in the beverage, water, soft drink and beer industry, and we are talking about an investment of almost 200 million dollars [181 million Euros] ”, she listed.
She guarantees that “most” of the investment she has been doing “is in Angola”. “…because I believe in Angola and in Africa”.
Isabel dos Santos wants Efacec international leader in electric mobility
Angolan businesswoman Isabel dos Santos told Lusa that she wants to transform Portuguese Efacec into an “international leader” company in the area of electric mobility and that she is paying attention to new business opportunities in Portugal in new technologies.
“The investment in Efacec was not an easy investment”, recalled the Angolan businesswoman, who has been a majority shareholder of Efacec since 2015, in an interview with Lusa agency on the sidelines of her visit to Cape Verde over the recent days.
“Just to get an idea, the negotiation itself took place for almost three years. It was a long, complex negotiation, because the company was going through a very complicated period,” explained Isabel dos Santos, questioned about the bet on that Portuguese brand that operates in the energy, engineering and mobility sectors, and which, she recalled, was in a “very serious financial situation”.
Now, she says, the goal is to turn Efacec “into a ‘player’ and an international leader” in the area of electric mobility. At the moment, the electric mobility business represents 6% of Efacec’s total revenues and the group intends to reach 15%, that is, close to 100 million Euros.
Until February, Efacec has been able to triple the production of fast and ultra-fast electric battery chargers and has launched, among other new projects, storage included charging solutions for residential and fleet areas, and is working on other innovative products in this area.
“When the investment opportunity in Efacec came up, not only I looked at it as a historic company, that is, it had a very important knowledge and legacy in energy, but above all as a good base for research and development of future technologies. When we first joined Efacec, one of the first things we did was to restructure the company”, which “needed to be modernized, needed to be more effective in its way of producing, but in addition we also invested in electric mobility, we built a new electrical unit” she pointed out.
“Today, the entire Efacec group has almost 2,000 workers in Portugal, but we are present in more than 30 countries,” added Isabel dos Santos, assuming herself as a businesswoman who “likes to invest in technology”.
“I like to think of the future, I like to see where societies are going, how we are going to live in the future,” she admitted.
She ensures that after the recovery of the company, Efacec is today an international company that bets on electric mobility, but does not intend to be limited to electric cars only.
“In the future it will not only be cars, there will be electric trains, electric buses, electric trucks. So the whole issue of mobility – how are we going to charge these cars, what kind of batteries are they going to have, how are we going to prepare our cities to receive this technology – is something that I am in love with and we are making a big investment in research and development, ”said Isabel dos Santos.
The Angolan businesswoman who leads Efacec aims to establish partnerships with Portuguese universities, thus using “Portuguese talent” to develop new solutions in this area.
“I particularly like investing in technology, it really is my passion. Whatever opportunities that have to do with technological development, technology that can be applied to people’s lives, that can improve people’s lives or city management, or even mitigate the impact on the environment and climate, these are areas that I’m very interested in and I would like to invest and have a look” she concluded “about new investments in Portugal”.
A bet that, being an Angolan woman, can benefit that Portuguese-speaking African country, having as its starting point the “500 years of common history”, a relationship that at times “was difficult” and at others “was better”.
“An Angolan company working in Portugal has a lot to gain, because it has access to the know-how, has access to a market that, from the point of view of maturity, is different, is at a maturity level different from the market in Angola”, she pointed out, stressing that this “exchange enriches Angolan companies”, making them “more competitive“.
“Therefore, this relationship Angola-Portugal, for me, is a unique relationship and I will continue to bet on both Angola and Portugal,” she concluded.
Angola is living in “instability” and needs to show that it is subject to the Rule of Law
Angolan businesswoman Isabel dos Santos told Lusa that the current climate of “instability” in Angola is not reliable to investors and that it is necessary to ensure that it follows the Rule of Law “with separation of powers”.
“We are living through difficult times, no doubt. We are experiencing moments of great doubt and what is fundamental and important is that the rule of law is respected. It is very important that the laws are respected, it is very important that there are no mishaps among the three powers, that people have confidence in the Justice”, began by explaining the businesswoman, daughter of former Angolan head of state, José Eduardo dos Santos.
In an interview with Lusa, on the sidelines of her visit to Cape Verde in recent days, the businesswoman was concerned about the various legal, media cases, ongoing or under investigation in Angola, mostly involving elements close to the former President and already dubbed by some public opinion, as Isabel dos Santos herself acknowledged, as a witch hunt.
“These processes are not easy. Today, for example, after I left Sonangol [Chairman of the Board from June 2016 to November 2017], there have been several reports in the media about possible inquiries, proceedings or examinations, but this was in the media. And then we live in a climate of speculation between what comes in the media and what actually happens or doesn’t happen in reality, which creates a lot of confusion. It would be important, it would be nice to have a little more clarity about what is going on, because people feel that this is confusing, that there is a lot of information that is not clear”, said the businesswoman.
“So there is some instability here that gives place to a lack of confidence,” she criticized.
At the same time, she underlines her concern about the resignation of the President of the Supreme Court of Angola, presented this month by Judge Rui Ferreira, who he himself justified with an “intense and cruel campaign of lies, misrepresentation of facts, intrigues, slander and insults”.
“How can defamation or slander campaigns be possible to the extent that a President of a Supreme Court, who is a very important body, feels the need not to continue in the position that was appointed for five years? I think this is not good. It does not convey confidence to investors”, commented Isabel dos Santos.
Considered by the BBC as one of the 100 most influential women in the world, Isabel dos Santos adds that this episode with Rui Ferreira – who, then presiding judge of the Constitutional Court, sworn in João Lourenço, in September of 2017, as the new President of the Republic – “does not give people confidence” in Angola.
“Today this climate is not reliable for investors to be able to invest and to continue betting,” she stressed, insisting that it is urgent to “assure people that there is a Rule of Law” in Angola and “that there is effectively separation of powers, that there is no interference of a legislative power with the other powers. This I think will be a very important paradigm shift.”
Still, she ensures that the process of “electoral transition” in Angola – in 2017, after her father, José Eduardo dos Santos, left power after 38 years – “was peaceful”.
“And it is an example of democracy in Africa, that it is possible to have democratic elections, it is possible to have a peaceful shift of power. I think that in this point, former President José Eduardo dos Santos was very good because he inspired other African leaders in the sense that Africa must also have this tradition. For us, elections have to be normal, the shift of power must be normal. Even if it goes to another party”, she said.
Regarding government in Angola, after two years in office with João Lourenço, the daughter of José Eduardo dos Santos admits that the scenario is of a “very complicated economic crisis”.
“We noticed that our economy in 2017, 2018, 2019 has entered into a very negative cycle. This is worrying. It worries me. I would like to see a more positive economy, I would like to see some decisions to be taken that can change the picture and that can raise the potential that Angola has to give Angolans the opportunity to have a better life, a good life”, she also said.
Despite this scenario, Isabel dos Santos has promised that she will continue to invest in Angola – where she has interests in the industry, from beverages to cement, distribution and telecommunications, among other activities – although she is now doing it more “shyly” due to the crisis: “We continue to invest. This year we have opened a new studio, we are now building a factory, which will be one of the largest glass factories in the country and we are also looking at investments in the agricultural sector. We continue to invest. It is difficult to invest in Angola today because we have a big profitability problem, consumption power has fallen, people buy much less than before, interest rates are high”.
VAT has arrived at the “toughest” moment in the Angolan economy
Businesswoman Isabel dos Santos, one of the largest employers in Angola, admitted in an interview to Lusa that many companies will not resist the introduction of VAT in the country, which is happening at the “toughest” moment in the economy.
“VAT (Value Added Tax) does not catch companies at their best. Consumption power has also decreased as a result of the kwanza’s own devaluation (more than 50% against the euro since 2018), because Angola is still heavily dependent on imports, and obviously this impact will be felt”, noted the Angolan businesswoman in an interview to Lusa on the sidelines of her visit to Cape Verde in recent days.
After successive postponements, Angola has had a single rate of 14% VAT in force since 1 October, with hundreds of complaints and reports of price speculation regarding different products since then.
According to Isabel dos Santos, the introduction of VAT in Angola takes place “at the toughest moment in the economy,” in a context in which the devaluation of the Angolan kwanza has already “lasted for some time” and when companies “have more fragile balance sheets”.
“In other words, in some cases, there was a third of the companies’ balance sheets that disappeared (due to the devaluation of the kwanza) (…) A company that had a million Euros of ‘stock’ in its balance sheet, today has €300,000”, she said, recalling that, on the other hand, “the costs are still the same”.
“Because they still have to pay rent, pay bank credit, interest rates are still high at 15, 16, 17%, some of the funding is indexed to the dollar, so they are still paying the same amount in dollars, but that means a lot more in kwanza”, she explained.
Currently working in Angola in areas ranging from drinks to distribution, telecommunications or cement, among others, she recalls that when she used to spend the equivalent of 100 thousand Euros in her industries to import raw materials, today she has to spend the equivalent of 200 to 300 thousand Euros in kwanza for the same amount.
It is in this scenario that the businesswoman says she is concerned about the introduction of VAT: “I think some companies will not have enough capital to hold on, I think some companies will not be able to resist because they will not be able to place the product at the right price”.
Moreover, she recalls the importance that the informal economy of selling in markets and on the streets still has in Angola, and that it “will not be so affected” by the introduction of the tax.
“And the formal economy will be more affected by VAT. So let’s see how all this will adapt. I think it is important to formalize the economy, it is important to make an effort to have more formal companies, more formal businesses, Small and Medium Enterprises”, she pointed out, saying that“ high taxation for companies “discourages entrepreneurs themselves” from legalizing informal businesses in Angola.
In the current moment of the Angolan economy, Isabel dos Santos also warns about the “high” unemployment, a scenario that is getting worse every day due to the country’s population growth.
“We are talking about a growth of 3% per year. In a population of 30 million there are 900,000 new people every year. Now while we are thinking of babies and children, we must also think that they are young people entering school, young people leaving school and young people in need of employment. But at the same time we have a problem because the economy is declining, we are experiencing negative growth. In other words, the economy has no capacity to absorb and create the amount of employment that is needed”, she highlighted.
Therefore, she upholds that Angola must have an employment policy for youth.
“Employment is key. I learned in my house from my husband that work dignifies man, work builds man and builds woman. And effectively young people have to find their destiny and know who they are going to be in society through work and then having the opportunity to have a first job is crucial”, she said.
She ensures that as a businesswoman and despite the current period of economic crisis, she has been investing in Angola, also in training young people.
“We have two academies, one that is the headquarters, which is a retail academy, where young people learn professions from the bakery, how to work in a fish shop, to be stock managers, to work with complex things, such as computer management of warehouses. We set up an academy that trains about a thousand young people a year, which guarantees these young people their first job. But this is an effort that we cannot do alone, we need other companies to create these opportunities”, she concluded.
Isabel dos Santos prepares investment in the digital economy in Cape Verde
Angolan businesswoman Isabel dos Santos, shareholder in Cape Verde of telecommunications operator Unitel T +, told Lusa she is preparing an investment in the digital economy in that country, a priority sector for the Cape Verdean government.
In an interview with Lusa agency on the sidelines of her visit to the city of Praia in recent days, the Angolan businesswoman recalled that investing in Cape Verde was “not easy at first”, given the reality of the country, which eventually evolved “a lot and positively in recent years”.
“Today there is a big bet for Cape Verde to become a ‘smart island’, a technological island, there is a big digital bet and it is effectively in this sector that we have been investing, we invest in telecommunications and today we are thinking of investing also in the digital economy, in other words, think business solutions, digital solutions that can be applied in small and medium businesses”, she said.
Without giving any further details, the businesswoman, who said she had invested about 100 million Euros in recent years in the Cape Verdean economy, starting with the telecommunications operator Unitel T +, says that the objective of the investment she envisages is to have “solutions that would be created here in Cape Verde”.
“Developed with technology companies here that could then be sold to other countries in Africa, as the digital solutions that are needed for our economies often have slightly different realities compared to the European or Western ones. And I think that in this sense Cape Verde is a good platform, a good investment, a good bet. There is some capacity in terms of human resources here and a really big interest, a strategic plan to see Cape Verde increasingly technological”, said Isabel dos Santos.
The businesswoman says that the business climate in Cape Verde has “evolved positively” and assumes that “today there is a great interest” in the country in “opening up the economy more”.
“The state is taking steps to withdraw from the economy, it is doing a major privatization program. On the other hand, it is true that Cape Verde is a stable country, it is a country that has peace, it has good governance, so it is a country, from this point of view, interesting for investors to be present and invest”, she emphasized.
Still, the businesswoman, regarded by the BBC as one of the 100 most influential women in the world, recalls that there is still “a lot to do” in Cape Verde, starting with the need to “define a 10-15 year plan” to project the development of the country, which should be, “above all inclusive”, involving the private sector.
“One of the big questions about Cape Verde is how to ensure profitability, so that companies can be profitable in order to be able to invest, especially investments in areas such as technologies, for example 5G, which is an extremely expensive investment. (…) There has to be a business scenario that provides enough money, enough financial capacity for those companies to invest”, she said.
With a medium-term plan and maintaining the commitment to tourism and other strategic areas of the country, Isabel dos Santos ensures that within 10 years, Cape Verde is able to be in the top 50 economies of “Doing Business”, the ranking of the World Bank on the ease of doing business, where it currently holds the 131st position.
“These are not difficult things to achieve. I think there are already big steps that have been taken by the Government, from the desire to digitize governance, the e-government, to introduce a lot of technological improvements. That is, there is this will and I believe this could change a lot and influence Cape Verde in the near future”, she concluded.
Isabel dos Santos says she gets into debt to invest and doesn’t use Angolan public money
The richest woman in Africa, the Angolan businesswoman Isabel dos Santos says that the recurring doubts about the origin of her investments result from a “negative narrative”, claiming that she has been getting into debt to be able to invest without resorting to the Angolan public purse.
“I work with banks in Cape Verde, with banks in other African countries, banks that support us, who believe in the projects, who believe in the validity of the projects we propose. So I have a lot of debt, I have a lot of financing to pay, interest rates are high, it is not always easy to have this business sustainability, so that I can cope with the whole financial side of the business, but I also have good teams and we work for it”, said the businesswoman, the daughter of former President of the Republic of Angola José Eduardo dos Santos, in an interview with Lusa agency on the sidelines of her recent visit to Cape Verde.
Asked by Lusa about the recurring doubts about the origin of her investments, the Angolan businesswoman, with interests in the industry, energy, banking, distribution and retail and telecommunications, among other areas, especially in Angola and Portugal, says she is used to going through complex processes of reputation assessments, even taking into account business relationships with international partners.
Something that, she says, happens “mainly” when it comes to “a businessman from Africa who is asked for a lot of information on how he will finance his business, what is the source of his funds, what plan does he have for his business, and so on. So, nowadays, all companies in general have these requests, these are normal requests. In my case, I even have more requests for clarification than other companies because there is obviously the issue of politically exposed people and of course, there is always attention to try to understand how the business is founded and financed”.
She says she currently works with more than 15 banks around the world and is not concerned with the usual doubts about her investments.
“When there are rumours that speak of public purse, it is false. Fortunately, I never worked with the public purse. I like working with the market, with the private sector, I like to make a product that people want to buy, but want to buy because it is good and has a good price”, she said, pointing out cases like BIC bank or telecom operator Unitel as examples of private projects she has successfully launched.
“I have no worries with doubts about the origin of investments, because as I say, I’ve always been scrutinized and it’s normal, it’s not something that worries me, I have partnerships with international companies that are forced to a higher level of governance. Before working with a partner they have to make sure that this person is fit and is what he or she claims to be. I work with large world groups, with large multinationals, with consultants who are in the top five worldwide, I work with banks, with commercial banking”, she emphasized.
Yet, she notes that there is more susceptibility in the Western world to accept “the idea that if money comes from Africa, or from African or Angolan businessmen, it is probably doubtful”.
“This is often linked to prejudice. Yes, there is a prejudice. Today I think it is very much based on lack of information. When we look at the media today, what is mentioned about Africa is very negative, and practically is only about politics, governments, wars, conflicts, disasters. Rarely companies are mentioned, African entrepreneurs are very little known, that is, the actors of African economies are still little known in Europe and the West. And that brings a level of distrust. And that distrust, clearly, is not just about me”, she says.
Isabel dos Santos, 46, was considered by the BBC as one of the 100 most influential women in the world and by Jeune Afrique as one of the 100 most influential people in Africa.
In the interview with Lusa, she insisted that her career as a businesswoman began in Angola, more than two decades ago. “I like people to remember that I didn’t start working yesterday, I didn’t start working in 2010, I started working in the 90’s, so it’s a very, very long route, and along this route we build reputation, we build relationships, with companies, with banks, and we are growing, we are being supported and effectively this is how I have to work”, she stresses.
The businesswoman says that the key to her success, as well as that of other businessmen, including Portuguese, was the strong growth of the Angolan economy from 2002 to 2017, precisely when she started investing in Angola.
“And we were lucky. Angola has grown. The Angolan economy from 2002 to 2017, for 15 years, had an average growth of almost 8-9% ”, she recalled, pointing out that the Angolan Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew during this period, almost 900%, from 30 billion to 130 billion dollars.
“Exactly during this period there were also many entrepreneurs and many Portuguese companies that made money and profit in Angola, hundreds of millions of euros, and these issues are never questioned. Therefore, one must also have no doubt that Angolan companies and entrepreneurs in this same business environment obviously also made money, also worked, invested … In fact, the investments are present, the jobs are obvious, the places they are built, they are not abstract investments”, she said.
Isabel dos Santos says she was “saving” Sonangol and denies transfer after resignation
Angolan businesswoman Isabel dos Santos says she agreed to lead Sonangol because it was “necessary to save” the oil company and not to “solve financial problems” for her or her family, denying that she had ordered any transfer after being suspended.
In an interview with Lusa, on the sidelines of a recent visit to Cape Verde, Isabel dos Santos revealed for the first time a copy of a proof of payment for the transfer of the Angolan National Fuel Society (Sonangol) in favour of Mater Business Solutions in the United Arab Emirates, dated November 15th, 2017 and ordered before her dismissal.
“I think there was exploitation and bad faith on the part of my successor (Carlos Saturnino), who wanted at some point, for his own reasons, I think it was for personal reasons not business reasons, to create a climate of distrust about the previous administration”, criticized Isabel dos Santos, who said that although the international transfer was effective that same day, it was not immediate, and the order was given on “November 13th or 14th”, but it wouldn’t be processed until November 15th, the day she was dismissed.
“And we did not have the slightest idea that we wouldn’t continue at Sonangol, and on what date the dismissal order would be given. In fact, we were taken by surprise. It’s not that we didn’t expect it, because we knew we had possibly lost the shareholder’s confidence and that the new government could have other plans for Sonangol”, she recalled.
On February 28th 2018, Carlos Saturnino, at the time chairman of Sonangol’s board of directors, denounced the existence of a transfer of 38 million dollars (34.4 million Euros) made by the outgoing administration, led by Isabel dos Santos, after her exoneration.
“When I went to Sonangol I went with a great sense of duty and above all with a sense of mission. I have been working for over 20 years, I have successfully built several businesses, so I would definitely not go to Sonangol as if it was my first job or to effectively solve my financial problems or those of my family”, she said.
On November 15th 2017, about 18 months after being nominated by former President José Eduardo dos Santos, the businesswoman’s father, Isabel dos Santos was dismissed from the position of chairman of Sonangol’s board of directors by João Lourenço, who had taken over the powers as Angola’s head of state for about a month and a half and who, that same day, appointed to the post Carlos Saturnino.
At stake in that transfer, Isabel dos Santos now asserts were consultancy work commissioned within the restructuring of Sonangol: “[The transfer] was not made after I left Sonangol in any way, and mostly concerned work that had been done, that was done, and was about old invoices. September invoices, October invoices, August invoices”.
“That wouldn’t even be possible, since I had not physical access to the buildings, to the computers”, she said.
In March 2018, the Attorney General’s Office of the Republic of Angola announced the opening of an investigation to verify the complaints made by Carlos Saturnino (removed from Sonangol last May), but no development has been known since.
Yet, the businesswoman states that “regardless” of who led Sonangol, these “are contracts that exist”, are “contracts with the company” and that is why they “are honoured”.
On the decision to accept, in June 2016, the invitation of her father and head of state, José Eduardo dos Santos, to lead the Angolan oil company, she guarantees that it was due to the need to “save the company”, but that this represented “some personal and reputational cost”.
Still, she says he would take up the challenge again: “I would go back because I believe we have done an extraordinary job. When we arrived at the company there was no money to pay salaries. I, as an Angolan, have always admired Sonangol. I thought and believed it was the largest company in our country, it was really our pillar, it was the company that inspired us, it was our pride, and I had no real idea that there was no money to even pay salaries”.
She adds that when she arrived at Sonangol the oil company had a debt of almost 20 billion dollars (18.100 million Euros) and that the contracts with the banks were in default. She even points out the letter from “one of England’s largest banks” which she received on the third day in office, requiring a payment within 48 hours.
“Payment for which there was no money. You have no idea, I had to get on a plane, go to an emergency meeting with this bank and ask: “Look, give me time. I need 15 days, I need 10 days, let us find solutions. ” And we worked hard with the financial sector, we worked hard with banking, we worked hard on restructuring”, she said, ensuring that in the 18 months in office, as part of the restructuring of Angola’s largest company, she cut costs by 40% and reduced debt by half.
“We made a big difference. So I have no regrets”, she assumed.
She explains the resignation of 2017 with the announced privatization of the Angolan state oil company: “The Government intends to privatize Sonangol. We were not a board that was put there for privatization we were put there for restructuring. Indeed, today I understand that the project was to privatize Sonangol and we wouldn’t have been – I personally wouldn’t have been-, the right board for this job anyway”, she said.
In addition to the restructuring of the Sonangol group, she ensures that in 18 months of management, with the support of external consultants, several projects were made, such as the creation of the National Petroleum Agency, created in the meantime.
“It’s an initiative that came from me, from my team (…) and was implemented. It’s there today and it exists”, she said.
“I am doing this interview today because I employ a lot of people and I like to think that I bear a responsibility for the livelihood of many families, so it is important that things are put clearly and it is visible that we worked at Sonangol in a sense of mission, in a spirit of saving the company, and we succeeded. The company is there”, she concluded.