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Internet For Africa, Olé!

Published 9 years ago
By Forbes Africa

While Spain faces a 23.6% unemployment rate and a forecasted 1.7% economic decline this year, Angola is the world’s fastest growing economy of the last decade, with an impressive 12% growth forecast for 2012. Ten years after the civil war (1975-2002), Angola has risen like a phoenix from the ashes.

Few could have predicted this. Ivan Pizarro (37), along with his brother, David (43), and José María Sánchez Soler (52) opted for Angola in the middle of Spain’s construction bubble. “People lived in a Peter Pan world, they spent crazy amounts of money. Our friends called us nuts when we left,” Ivan recalls.

Eight years later, Global Telesat has been named Most Innovative Company in Africa by Spanish newspaper El Mundo, while most of the Pizarros’ friends in Spain are struggling. “Do you see this pile here? All Spanish and Portuguese applications. Most of our Spanish friends have tried to get a job at Global Telesat. We’ve hired 10 of them.”

More than that, the European economic meltdown has been advantageous for Global Telesat. “We are able to recruit Europeans we didn’t have access to before. And all the European companies fleeing to Angola need the internet.”

Global Telesat’s history began in 2003. Its founders were commissioned to build a satellite cyber cafe for the Spanish soldiers in Iraq, which they did from their parents’ garage during the Christmas holidays. “The company that commissioned us then offered us a telecommunications license in Equatorial Guinea via José María, so we rushed to create Global Telesat and flew there,” Ivan says. They “escaped” after three days.

Instead, they decided to embark on a similar adventure in Angola. Off they went, with $10,000 among the three of them plus “two very cheap, old and tired second-hand jeeps”.

“José María and I managed to find a house in the city center, which was in a really bad state. It cost $2,500 a month and needed $50,000 worth of renovations,” Ivan says. Due to investment expenses, the three only managed to cover costs during the second year. “We almost went bankrupt twice. Luanda’s incredibly high cost of living was the toughest aspect of getting started.” For Sánchez Soler, finding the appropriate local partners in Angola was the number one difficulty, before “bureaucracy and a very slow business rhythm”.

The Pizarros and Sánchez Soler started out doing a bit of everything, including fixing and selling computers and VSATs (very small aperture terminals). They briefly ran an LED display business. “It was a rough time, in a tense environment. We knew nothing and no-one, lived without furniture and worked from our sitting room for almost two years, until we could afford our current office.”

Soon, Global Telesat embarked on one international high-profile satellite internet project after the other. It created the well-publicized, first continental satellite internet connection from Morocco to Europe via the Strait of Gibraltar in 2004; connected the Spanish army in Herat and Kabul to the world-wide web in 2006; and built satellite cyber cafes for soldiers in Libreville and Kinshasa during the UN supervision of the Congo elections in 2007.

Officially registering Global Telesat in Angola was not easy. Sanchez Soler and David bought an existing, but inactive debt-free, Angolan company in 2004. It had a so-called ‘alvara’ (permit), which allows you to import and export and is “a must for every company in Angola”. Ivan points to a huge pile of documents in the cupboard behind him. “Never start a company in Angola,” he says jokingly. “You need each one of those, and each requires 20 letters to a given ministry. It takes years to complete the whole process.”

Angola ranks 168 out of 182 countries on Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, but Ivan says Global Telesat won’t accept or pay bribes. “That has both disadvantages and advantages. We miss out on many business opportunities because of that, but at the same time, it secures lots of deals with the type of people we want to work with: embassies, NGOs and international companies and organizations.”

Judging from Global Telesat’s achievements, one might wonder exactly what opportunities it has missed out on. The company recently became the first in Angola to own a European teleport. It has the exclusive rights to RascomStar in Angola and owns RascomStar’s only European teleport. Global Telesat is also the only Angolan representative of MWEB and Israeli joint venture company SkyVision, one of the world’s leading satellite operators.

With around 50 employees, the majority of them Angolan, Global Telesat provides satellite internet and electronic security equipment to major clients, including the Cuban and Angolan governments; Angolan state oil company Sonangol; Interpol; the Angolan Immigration Service (SME); beer brands Cuca, Ekka and Nocal; Unicef; the Angolan armed forces (FAA); embassies; and international NGOs. Its annual turnover in 2011 was between $4 and $6 million. This year, it forecasts an $8 million turnover. Global Telesat has grown a steady 25% annually.

The fact that Multitel, MS Telecom, ITA and Dimension Data are Global Telesat’s main competitors is anything but a problem. “What makes doing business in Angolan telecommunications unique and fun is the fact that almost all of the competitors are friends. We even share houses sometimes,” Ivan says.

Ivan studied electro-technical engineering after specializing in telecommunications in Ireland. He accepted a job there at Dell and experienced the boom and burst of the dotcom bubble while at Dell. He then moved to Hewlett-Packard in Barcelona and various smaller IT companies before becoming project manager of Siemens Germany. For four years, he oversaw the implementation of GSM satellite stations in the Middle East, USA, China, Pakistan and Brazil. He also brings extensive satellite internet experience from some time as a political activist.

Originally a technical engineer with a telecommunica-tions specialization, David has seven years of electronic security experience at Digisoft in Spain.

Sánchez Soler studied piloting then physics in Granada. He worked as a salesman at Spain’s first private, commercial IT group, Centre de Càlcul de Sabadell, for eight years. At the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992, and together with David, he developed software to feed 20,000 people a day on behalf of the company, Jomipsa. Next, as Jomipsa’s commercial director, he dealt with more than 50 countries, including Angola, until 2003. Jomipsa designed and manufactured combat food rations for armies.

After Angola’s civil war ended in 2002, the nature of doing business with Angola changed drastically. “But Jomipsa didn’t want to invest in Angola, so I jumped out and looked for partners. In December 2003, we founded food company SPA (Societdade de Produtos Alimentares, Lda.), which we closed after internal differences.” Global Telesat was next.

What makes Global Telesat stand out, as much as its breakthroughs, is its well of remarkable stories. One example is that of its first employees.

“Our guards were constantly being harassed by Jehovah’s Witnesses or Igreja Universal members,” Ivan says. “When I came back from work one day and caught them reading these pamphlets, I got angry. ‘If you’re bored,’ I said, ‘I’ll give you something interesting to read.’ I gave them books on telecommunications and IT, and they got excited. After work, we allowed them to sell satellite internet connections and electronic security products. They decided to copy the church guys and attack in couples, which worked. They were then hired by Global Telesat.”

One of these former guards specialized in satellite internet installations, one in sales and the other in electronic security. Two of them now own their own companies.

Global Telesat is trying to make a difference in Angola. “Among other projects, we have offered hundreds of professional courses for internet installers. We may soon get support from the Ministry of Education,” says Ivan.

Global Telesat consists of a satellite internet and an electronic security department. Ivan heads the internet branch; David the security branch. Sánchez Soler, the company’s CEO, lives in Spain. All three own equal shares. It is a structure that works.

Global Telesat’s satellites are located in a ring around the earth at a distance of 38,000km from the earth. From that position, they perform a 24-hour rotation around the globe.

Monthly corporate rates for Global Telesat’s satellite internet connections start at $300 and can reach upwards of $50,000. A once-off investment starts at $3,000. “After that, the price difference with a terrestrial is not that big,” Ivan says. “Satellite internet reaches any place in Angola, including its most deserted areas and oil rigs in the middle of the sea. This is the key advantage of satellite internet over fiber-optic internet.” And prices are going down, mainly because of Global Telesat’s access to Africa’s RascomStar satellite.

“Look!” Ivan says. He hands me his mobile phone, which shows moving images of Global Telesat’s office. “What you’re seeing is being recorded right now by our camera systems and broadcast over the satellite. A simple internet connection allows me to check my premises on my iPhone. “This is a killer in Angola, because people can monitor their business without being present, even from another continent.”

Adds David: “Since the war, Angolans feel the need for more safety. That includes electronic security, which is lacking.” Global Telesat also offers automatic fire detection and extinguishing equipment.

“We had two competitors in 2004, Infortel and AfriAlarm, but their prices were double what ours were. We’re not the biggest electronic security firm in Angola, but unlike our competitors, we operate professionally according to European quality standards. We offer the best equipment available. Our surveillance cameras’ definition, for example, is up to four times sharper than those of our competitors.”

Many of Global Telesat’s electronic security systems are used to prevent labor abstinence, for instance, through fingerprint controls. At the end of the month, the fingerprints are reviewed and registered and salaries are paid accordingly.

“Apart from equipment that could, in theory, be used for spying, we also offer anti-spying equipment such as mobile phone frequency blockers or tools that can localize hidden cameras,” David says.

The Pizarros and Sánchez Soler have never regretted setting foot in Angola. “Unlike Europe, rules and regulations are no major obstacle here,” David says. “You can truly set up your business according to your wishes. Plus, Angola is a country full of companies rich in financial resources.”

“After 27 years of war, Angola offers immense room for growth and so many opportunities,” Sánchez Soler agrees. “Competition is not as high as it is in Europe. We moved to Angola at a time when hardly anyone in Spain knew Angola. We bet on Angola, and we won.”

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Related Topics: #Angola, #Global Telesat, #IT group, #MWEB, #piloting, #Sánchez Soler, #Spain, #Telecommunications.