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Popping Millions Into Mozambique

Why would the world’s 212th richest man want to pour his millions into an unpredictable banking sector? Cork billionaire Américo Amorim believes he has seen the future in Mozambique and it works.

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It’s a warm, overcast, spring afternoon in Julius Nyerere Avenue in the heart of Maputo amid the hooters and rattle of people driving home from work through the potholes. On the side of the road in front of brand spanking new bank headquarters, a group of urbane bankers chat quietly and shift from foot to foot in expectation.

The building used to be a hotel as rundown as the streets that run by it. “This was a ruin; now look at it,” says one of the senior managers proudly. A small curious crowd has gathered. The word is out that one of the richest men in the world is about to arrive. A car sweeps in like a summer breeze off Maputo Bay; a group of people jump out. “Which one is he?” says someone nearby.

Banco Unico branch in Maputo, Mozambique; 15 September 2011 – Photo by Brett Eloff.

Closing the door behind him is the man himself, dressed in grey suit, with a red-striped shirt and matching tie; Américo Amorim—the 212th richest man on earth, according to FORBES in 2010, worth an estimated $4 billion. With a gentle smile and handshake, he blends into the waiting crowd of bankers and could be one of them. If you are looking for a billionaire who wears his eminence lightly, look no further than this man; a man who not only admires Nelson Mandela, but also appears to subscribe to the great man’s approach to humility.

Make no mistake, there is an iron will behind the smile and a reputation in Maputo—born of his latest deal—as a tough negotiator. Amorim, who made a fortune from putting corks into the world’s bottles, was in Maputo to see where a chunk of his fortune has gone. The 77-year-old entrepreneur’s empire is in a joint venture with Portuguese conglomerate Visabeira, which owns 61% of Mozambique’s newest bank, Banco Unico, which has opened in Maputo with $20 million in initial equity share capital. The remainder, aside from a small stake for management, is owned by Mozambique-based private companies and pension funds.

High-rise construction in Maputo, Mozambique; 14 September 2011 – Photo by Brett Eloff.

Amorim, speaking through aninterpreter, is not fazed by his lofty FORBES ranking: “I am indifferent to that. My passion is to build companies… My happiness is to be busy.” Amorim has certainly been busy for almost his entire adult life. He took over the management of the family cork business at the tenderage of 18, when his parents died; from that moment, according to his close colleagues, Amorim has worked at least 12 hours a day in more than half a century as an entrepreneur. The Amorim Group has its roots in a small family cork business started by Amorim’s grandfather in 1870. The business is based in the tiny town of Mozelos, 19 kilometers from Porto, near the Portuguese forests, which hold more than half of the world’s cork. The young Amorim took to the family business with a will and travelled the world to sell cork.

In 1958, he journeyed to the then unfashionable Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc to strike deals. It made his company Portugal’s biggest exporter to Eastern Europe. In 1962, Amorim invested 75,000 euros ($102,000) in the business, to modernize and mechanize; the company consolidated cork production in Portugal and down the years expanded into Spain, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Sardinia.

Nearly 60 years on from the young Amorim’s first day in the office, the family empire declared sales of 457 million euros ($621 million) in April and posted profits of 20.5 million euros ($27.8 million) for 2010. The company is the world’s largest manufacturer of corks, making three billion a year. One in four corks popped around the globe is made by Amorim’s company. Like the corks, Amorim’s investments have also popped up far and wide, including: 33.44 % of GALP, Portugal’s energy company; a share in Spain’s third largest  financial institution, Banco

Popular; and in BIC, a commercial bank in Angola. Despite this vast wealth, Amorim has no time for fast boats and private jets—corks are his business and passion. In fact, rare passion flows in the interview when the thorny subject of plastic bottle stoppers comes up. “Plastic is not appropriate for wine.

Nature never spoils. The champagne industry has been in existence for 320 years and it has never stopped using corks. Corks are always preferred by people with good taste. It (plastic stoppers) is a bad taste idea,” he says. So why is this man, with a passion for corks, throwing millions into Mozambique’s often uncertain banking sector with its past allegations of corruption? Legendary investigative journalist Carlos Cardoso was gunned down in a Maputo street in 2000 while at the heart of an investigation into corruption in banking in Mozambique.

Portuguese billionaire & majority shareholder of newly launched Banco Unico, celebrates the opening of the bank’s headquarters in Maputo, Mozambique; 14 September 2011 – Photo by Brett Eloff.

A lot has changed in the last 10 years, but there is still talk among sources in the know in Maputo of murky goings on in the banks. But Amorim is unconcerned. “I don’t consider Mozambique a risk. It has stability and its institutions are functioning. It is a rich country with a lot of raw materials and minerals… I have investments in 37 countries around the world, including Europe, and even there, there is corruption. It’s not a thing that bothers me.” The rewards for risk in Mozambique could be high for those with light feet and an eye for a fast return. In the week that Amorim landed in Maputo, the first coal exports from the mighty Moatize project, near Tete in the north-west corner of the country, was railed down the Sena railway line and exported through the northern port of Beira.

The Moatize expects to ramp up to four million tons of thermal coal a year, for electricity production. It has a target of 52 million tons by 2026, according to consultants working on the project. On top of this, BHP Billiton runs the Mozal smelter, just to the south of Maputo; South African energy giant Sasol is investing $300 million into the Pande gas field 600km north east of the capital. In Maputo itself, foreign investors have brought the swinging construction cranes back to the skyline as they build offices and homes for the newly wealthy.

Mozambique, once the poorestcountry in the world, where less than two decades ago even food was scarce, is growing fast and the financial industry is growing with it.

A report by KPMG in 2009 said the banks of Mozambique were highly profitable, despite the international financial crisis, seeing a profit of $116.4 million for the year, up 17.9% on 2008. Revenue from loans grew by 13.3% and bad debts were less than 2%. New anti-corruption laws are on the way, even though they are greeted with scepticism by many Mozambican business people. “It will exist only on paper,” chuckled a young Mozambican entrepreneur over a beer in a nearby restaurant.

One Mozambican who is bullish about his economy, to say the least, is Joao Figueiredo, the home-grown CEO One of the many cranes operating in the heart of Maputo of Banco Unico. He predicts that the economy will grow at 10.5% by 2013, compared to the current growth of 6.6%. Even so, Banco Unico could struggle to lend in the early days in the face of high interest rates. The International Monetary Fund is urging Mozambique to keep a tight monetary policy to fight inflation of around 12.8%, even at the risk of a slowdown in the economy.

Despite this, the repo rate came down in August, but before anyone got too excited, it went down to 16%. Couldn’t this be a problem for the new bank on the block? Not exactly, says Figueiredo. “When you look at the market you have to look beyond the short term to the long-term possibilities of Mozambique… The economy appreciates in terms of long-term. There is potential for the future, especially in the mining sector. The stability of the inflation rate and itsdecrease from the beginning of the year is a good sign.” Banco Unico is trying a different approach to break into a market which is dominated by four major banks. Its branches are all designer furniture and soft background music, more airport lounge than bank; there are no queues and there’s coffee while you wait for your consultant to deal with you one-on-one.

It is clear that the bank is aimed at the moneyed middle class, which, the cynics point out, excludes most of the population. Fernando Lima, a veteran Maputo journalist, says: “There are inefficiencies in the banks here. They are expanding but don’t have the human resources to keep pace. There is a lot of poaching of top staff. People also want to see more competition among the banks.” Figueiredo says: “The four biggest banks have 90.2% of the market. It is a concentrated market. There is competition, but there is room for more.

Room to grow as a financial system… The system is not yet mature and that contribution we can give to the market. There is space for more banks, but there are things you need to know before coming to Mozambique. You can’t come with foreign concepts because they won’t work here.” Banco Unico plans to go regional in the future; it appears the world’s 212th richest billionaire is in for the long haul. The interviews in the offices overlooking Maputo harbor, conducted to the crash of waves below, are over. It is night now and the many colored lights of the ships in the harbor shine forth like beacons.

As I thank Amorim for his time and patience he says, through the translator: “You don’t get tired when you love what you do.” For now, Amorim loves putting foreign direct investment into Mozambique, an emerging economy that needs it more than most.

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Agriculture

Green-Sky Thinking

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In Johannesburg, city-dwellers like Linah Moeketsi have taken the future of sustainable farming into their own hands. Where land is becoming scarce, they look to the skies.


Doornfontein is one of Johannesburg’s older inner-city suburbs with decaying buildings and dingy alleys that wear a dour, monochrome look.

Daily commuters and street surfers jostle with delivery vans and mountains of metal scrap but the grey of the concrete city makes it hard to believe that there could be a patch of green in a most unlikely location.

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Above the humdrum of life here is a rooftop hydroponics farm looking down on the city, but upwards to a new route to restoration and urban preservation.

Atop the eight-floor Stanop building – offering a breath-taking view of the city and the landmark Ponte Towers in the distance – one woman has made it her mission to turn a grimy grey terrace into a green lung on the city’s skyline.

“City life is taking on a totally new direction… even people who think they couldn’t one day farm, find themselves on rooftops,” Linah Moeketsi tells FORBES AFRICA.

Moeketsi grows herbs, used to treat non-communicable diseases (NCDs), in a 250m x 500m greenhouse on the building’s terrace. But her rooftop farm is sans any soil – it uses a hydroponics system.

“I think because we are in the city and we would like to produce for people in the city, hydroponic farming is one of the answers because you can actually harvest more than twice the produce, and the growth rate is quicker and there is produce that you can have throughout the year that people demand because it is in a controlled environment,” she says.

On a windy Wednesday morning in October, we meet Moeketsi at her aerial green facility, a couple of days before she is to send some of her plant produce to the market.

She talks about her journey as an offbeat farmer. It all started when her father fell ill in 2013, when doctors failed to correctly diagnose his disease.

“They couldn’t see that he was diabetic. He didn’t show the signs of diabetes, but he had this foot ulcer that just wouldn’t go away,” she says.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle.

Moeketsi decided to do her own research, so she read up books on African medicinal plants and used some herbs that belonged to her late mother, who had been a traditional healer.

“It took me a good eight months to help my dad and I actually saved him from having an amputation.”

The news of Moeketsi curing her dad’s diabetes using herbs spread. Sadly, her father died in 2016, at the age of 87. But she is proud to have helped prolong his life.

“So he passed away in his sleep, not sick, nothing, he was just old. But he was always grateful; he was like, ‘even when I die, I’m going to die with both my limbs’, so we would make a joke about it.”

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After her father’s demise, Moeketsi rented some land and turned her knowledge on natural herbs into a fully-fledged farm. However, when the owner of the land returned, she was forced to vacate.

Land was always going to be a problem in the city. But instead of giving up, Moeketsi looked to the skies.

“Because of this passionate drive for an answer, I found myself researching what’s happening outside Gauteng and South Africa, and I saw in Europe, they were farming on rooftops,” she says.

In 2017, her dream became a reality when she secured a deal with the City of Johannesburg as part of an urban farming program, and started the rooftop project a year later.

When we visit her greenhouse, we are welcomed by the sweet lingering scent of herbs. It’s hot and humid, and two fans whir away to cool the air.

Moeketsi walks around the greenhouse wearing dark glasses and a white jacket, with a syringe in hand – she could easily pass off as a medical doctor.

She elaborates on the hydroponics system. There are four pyramids, each attached to their own reservoirs of water. On each pyramid, different plants, ranging from spinach, lettuce, sage, parsley, basil and dill, rest on beds with pipes connecting them to the reservoirs. Moeketsi plucks out one of the pipes and inserts the syringe; water spouts out of the tube and she returns it to the bed.

“Twice a day, you have to check that water is actually going through the pipes, because that’s how the plants get water and nutrients,” she explains, as she unblocks a pipe using the syringe. She says it’s one of the best ways to farm using little water.

“When you put in certain plants in the greenhouse, you know you are guaranteed sustainable farming because you can produce those plants and harvest them,” she says.

Moeketsi adds that this allows her produce to stay consistent season after season.

“So, from that point of view, it makes the city more sustainable in terms of food produce that is easily accessible and cost-effective for the consumer because not everyone around here can afford the high prices of food but they can at least afford what we sell, whether it is at R10 ($0.5) or R15 ($1).”

As Moekesti continues to tend to the plants, a farmer she works with walks in and begins filling up the reservoirs.

Lethabo Madela has known Moekesti for almost six years.

“When you look around Johannesburg, there is no space, so rooftops have saved us a lot, especially those of us that love farming,” says Madela. “I’m learning a lot and I think she [Moekesti] changed the whole concept of farming for me because I used to farm vegetables. I didn’t know culinary herbs or medicinal herbs.”

Moeketsi speaks of other farmers around the city who have taken to the rooftops to farm plants such as strawberries, lemon balm, spinach and lettuce.

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In a suburb called Marshalltown, a 10-minute drive from Moeketsi’s farm, Kagiso Seleka farms lemon balm also using hydroponics.

He produces sorbet and pesto from his produce which is then used to make ice cream.

“It [hydroponics] is great for farming sensitive plants in terms of temperature. Lemon balm does not like frost. But it’s better to grow even out of season so you can set a higher price,” he tells us.

However, he says hydroponics farming is a luxury not many farmers can afford.

“It [hydroponics] does have a bit of a higher capital upfront, but you get a higher yield and higher quality, so people are willing to pay more. Hydroponic planting saves about ninety five percent of water soil farming in a water-scarce country,” says Seleka.

READ MORE| Local Solutions Can Boost Healthier Food Choices In South Africa

“We do have water shortages, and I know people are on the whole ‘organic trip’ but, is it more important to have an organic plant versus a water-saving environment?”

The Program Coordinator for Agriculture at the City of Johannesburg’s Food Resilience Unit, Lindani Sandile Makhanya, says there certainly are more rooftop farmers in Johannesburg now than ever before.

Converting idle terraces into avenues of profit is becoming a norm. There are new rooftop farms being set up every day, offers Makhanya.

He regularly visits Moeketsi’s farm to check on the progress and collect produce to sell.

“Urban farming in Johannesburg is rising, mainly because the idea of producing our own food is very important because most people are moving to urban areas and therefore it stands to reason that we have to try to produce as much as possible,” says Makhanya.

“[There is growth] even in animal production, although we are moving away from the bigger numbers, but we are involving the smaller ones; because of the space issue, they are increasing overall.”

For Moeketsi, her farm has changed her life and given her hope for a better future. In addition to the teas, tinctures, ointments and medicinal products she processes from her plants, she plans to include more by-products such as syrups in the future.

“The future of city farming is great simply because we have more and more young people getting into this space. Even though it’s farming, they are looking at it from a very different angle,” she says. “That is why the city is changing and rooftop farming is going to get bigger and bigger.”

Clearly, farming in Africa is covering exciting new ground.

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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020

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FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.


JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.

NOMINATIONS AND APPLICATIONS CRITERIA:

Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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Entrepreneurs

The Life And Wisdom Of Richard Maponya

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He was one of the big names in business in Africa; as gentlemanly. as he was shrewd. He fought the odds and apartheid to stake his place in business and inspire millions of his countrymen to do the same.

Richard Maponya – the doyen of black business in South Africa – passed away in the early hours of January 6, after a short illness. Maponya turned 99 on Christmas Eve near the end of a long and fruitful life that saw him dine with the Queen, laugh with Bill Clinton and chauffer his old friend Nelson Mandela. Mandela asked Maponya, who owned a car dealership, to pick him up at the airport in Johannesburg after his release from prison in 1990.

Ï picked him up at the airport and that was the most frightening time of my life. We were chased by people on foot, helicopters, motorbikes and cars. Everyone just wanted to touch Mandela. They could kill him just trying to touch him,” Maponya recalled to Forbes Africa in a cover story in March 2017.   

Mandela was a close friend of Maponya since the 1950s. The future president, then a young lawyer   helped Maponya set up his first business against the restrictive apartheid laws that shackled black business.

Maponya wanted to open a clothing store in Soweto, Johannesburg; the authorities said no. Mandela lost the fight for the clothing store, but did manage to secure him a license to trade daily necessities. This opened the way for Maponya to start out with a milk delivery business that was to prove the foundation of his fortune.

More than half a century on, Mandela, then a former president of South Africa, beamed with pride, in 2007, as he opened the first shopping mall in Soweto.

Maponya Mall had taken the canny businessman a good deal of patience to put together. He acquired the land in 1979 – the first black man to secure a 100-year lease for land in Soweto – and spent many more years building up the mall.

“Ï fought for 27 years for that mall and was many times denied; they actually thought I was dreaming. When Nelson Mandela cut the ribbon to open the mall, that was the highlight of my life,” Maponya said years later.

It was a mile on a road less travelled by Maponya in a long journey from the tiny township of Lenyenye in Limpopo in northern South Africa where he was born. He moved across the province to Polokwane to train as a teacher and then, like many young men of his generation, moved south to Johannesburg in search of his fortune.

In those days, the gold mining city was booming, but only the few saw the fruits. Maponya was blocked at every turn as he tried to make his way in business; he won through making a fortune from property, horse racing, retail, cars and liquor.

Maponya mentored many black entrepreneurs and inspired many millions more he had never met. One of them was Herman Mashaba, the former mayor of Johannesburg, who made his own fortune with hair care products.

“To myself and the people I grew up with he was an inspiration to all of us to get into business…If he had started out in business in a normal world there is no doubt he would have been even bigger than he was,” Mashaba told CNBC Africa.

Maponya will be mourned by the millions who were inspired to follow him and by a business world that is richer, in more ways than one, for his nearly a century of hard work in which retirement was never an option.

“People who retire are lazy people. You retire and do what? Bask in the sun?  I am not that type of man,” he said in 2017 at the age of 96.

He could never be.

By Chris Bishop  

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