Angola is usually not a name that features heavily in discussions about investing in Africa.
Apart from the language barrier, which sees Portuguese speaking countries regularly omitted in favour of the dominant Anglophone and Francophone regions, the country does not have much history in attracting foreign investment. For decades the Southern African economy has been largely inaccessible to all but the most adventurous people in business.
Known primarily for its oil exports – Angola is Africa’s second largest producer – and the longtime rule of former president José Eduardo dos Santos the country has remained firmly on the fringes. All of this has made for a bad public image, to the frustration of leading Angolan business figures like Álvaro Sobrinho, a financier and investor. His business interests include banking, real estate and media.
“Angola has continued to suffer from being fairly impenetrable as a place to do business,” he says, reeling off a familiar checklist of constraints such as underdeveloped infrastructure and poor education levels. The wider issue, he argues is “a lack of awareness and trust for international investors”. Angola’s image is, Sobrinho contends, not entirely deserved.
“While the issues are often shared, success stories are overlooked and I think that is a big barrier to business too – perception is an important driver,” he laments. He has a point. On paper Angola should enjoy stronger awareness. It has a population of around 30m, vast mineral reserves and close to two decades of stability following the end of a bitter civil war in 2002.
Things are changing
The good news is that things may be changing. When former defence minister João Lourenço succeeded José Eduardo dos Santos as Angola’s president last September it was seen as nothing more than a symbolic exercise. Lourenço was handpicked, and widely expected to perform the role of puppet president while dos Santos steered the ship behind the scenes. His presidency is turning out to be quite different.
From publicly firing dos Santos’s children from key economic positions, to opening up strategic sectors like telecoms, devaluing the currency and reforming Angola’s notorious visa regime, Lourenço has surprised many at home and globally. The aim is to open Angola to the international business community, and while the consensus among observers is to wait and see if reforms can be sustained, there is an undeniable sense of change permeating through the country – shared by Sobrinho.
“There is a lot happening in Angola… I think we are witnessing the emergence of a new chapter for the country,” he muses. “I believe that it is the responsibility of the state to create the best conditions for business. This includes decentralising the economy and building trust for investors by ensuring a fair justice system and the appropriate incentives to bring investments to key sectors.”
Key sector priorities should be telecoms, agriculture and tourism. The latter obviously resonates with Sobrinho, who lights up with enthusiasm as he speaks of the country’s tourism potential.
Opportunities in tourism
“Angola is blessed with some of the richest lands and seas in the world but also some of the least seen,” he says. “There is great opportunity to increase tourism, and the recent announcement to streamline the visa process is a good example of the support required to encourage further investment. I believe it is a big step in the right direction.”
Tourism is a sector Sobrinho is already investing in, having just finished the new Luanda Yacht Club, a hospitality development that provides accommodation, boat management, restaurants and other services. It sits on Luanda’s Ilha do Cabo, which overlooks the city and its bay.
The brand new building certainly stands out in Luanda, where large-scale and modern property developments still remain the exception. The facility is twinned with the Yacht Club of Monaco, something he hopes reflects the “quality and ambition” of the project.
If Sobrinho has his way the Yacht Club is just part of a much more ambitious project to put Angola on the international tourism map. The country sits on major cruise ship routes to the port cities of Durban and Cape Town, which currently have no stopover between Ghana on the west coast and South Africa.
With 1,600km of largely untouched Atlantic coastline Sobrinho believes Angola is ideally positioned to plug this gap. The plan is a multibillion dollar development on the Luanda coast, the “Marina Baia”. If completed – phase one has been estimated at about eight years – it will be akin to a mini city catering to the modern tourist’s every need – from casinos and hotels to private residences and shopping. It will also have the capacity to dock three large cruise ships at once.
“The west coast of Africa is an immense space in which hospitality and tourism is greatly underrepresented. Luanda, a port so well located for travellers from across the world, has enormous potential to be a regular and popular stopoff for visitors,” he says.
For now it is just an empty stretch of beach with a few containers and bulldozers on it. Looking out at the Atlantic Ocean Sobrinho’s vision is admittedly difficult to picture, but his sense of optimism and boundless ambition should not be dismissed.