Author: Claudio Silva

Angola’s hidden crisis

What exactly constitutes development for a post-conflict African country? Is it the built environment or investment in human capital?

That’s a question I think about daily here in Luanda, Angola’s rapidly changing capital. On paper, Angola is a success story and a frequently cited example in the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative. It has enjoyed double-digit economic growth during the last decade, fueled by its plentiful crude oil deposits, and is experiencing a construction boom. It’s even attracting big-name luxury brands, such as Porsche, Gucci, Prada and Armani.

Luanda’s skyline is dotted with construction cranes and our nascent middle class is expanding. But it isn’t just (some) Angolans benefiting from the boom. Perhaps most striking of all, Angola has become a sort of El Dorado for the Portuguese, Angola’s old colonial power. In Angola, the Portuguese are finding much better livelihoods here than in Europe, where they’re one of the most prominent victims of the continent’s financial slowdown.

Luanda cityscape at dusk. (Reuters)
Luanda’s cityscape at dusk. (Reuters)

But for all the investment in the built environment, investment in human capital is severely lacking. I’d even venture to say it’s Angola’s hidden crisis. Speak to anyone in any industry and they’ll tell you about the great difficulty they have in hiring competent Angolans, let alone highly skilled ones. And the skills we’re talking about are as basic as properly reading and writing in Portuguese. A friend of mine who works for a television studio put it bluntly: “We’ll need expats here for the next 40 years. I have staff that can’t write a simple email without glaring spelling mistakes.”

Angola’s lack of investment in education isn’t exactly news. Portugal’s colonial system rigorously discouraged education among its African subjects, with its missionary schools the only exception to this rule. The long, brutal civil war that wrecked the country immediately after independence further hampered education efforts. But now, 12 years after peace has been achieved, investment in education remains depressingly low. And it shows.

In the many multinationals and large national firms that operate in Angola, Portuguese workers have a strong presence in middle management and senior roles. It’s true that Angola’s lack of skilled workers was exacerbated by the war years and foreign help is not only warranted but acutely needed. Yet, I see no evidence of any effort being done on a governmental level to change this reality. In fact, we are one of Africa’s worst investors in education, regularly spending less than 10% of our national budget on this expenditure. When compared to post-conflict countries such as Burundi and Côte d’Ivoire, who each last year spent over 20% of their budget on education, this is especially startling. Angola, in comparison, dedicated just 6.2% of its budget on education.

So how do these statistics translate to our day-to-day reality? Three of my family members are professors in both public and private universities in Luanda, and all three often complain about just how intellectually poor their students are, to the point where they cannot properly read, write or solve basic mathematical problems. We’re talking about university-level students. But the professors stress that it’s not their fault – rather, they’re the product of a seriously deficient educational system at the primarily level. Professors are required by law to pass 80% of their students onto the next grade, regardless of their skill and intelligence. By the time they get to university, many of these students are lacking even the most basic skills to succeed and learn.

And if you think that the government is addressing this important issue, think again. Just this year, they further slashed public investment in primarily level education by an outrageous 33%. Instead, and despite our 12 years of peace, the government preferred to invest its earnings in military equipment. So much so that Angola is sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest military spender. The wisdom of spending $6.1-billion on military equipment, a lot of it nearly obsolete, during peacetime, to the detriment of proper spending in education, is extremely worrying.

Although it likes to think of itself as a regional leader and enjoys flexing its financial muscle, Angola does not have a single university in Africa’s top 100. Its existing universities, with very few exceptions, are utter shambles.

Continuous and sustainable investment in education is a must if we are to have a properly functioning society and economy run by Angolans. Human development is our most pressing need because human capital is our most valuable commodity. Oil will run out one day, and the financial crisis in Portugal that brings so many Portuguese to our workforce will one day end. Who then, will run Angola, and with what education?

Claudio Silva is Angolan. He has spent time in New York, Washington DC, Lisbon, Reading (UK) and attended university in Boston. In 2009, he started Caipirinha Lounge, a music blog dedicated to Lusophone music. Claudio contributes to several other blogs including Africa is a Country and Central Angola 7311. Connect with him on Twitter.

Hurdles and hope: Doing business in Luanda

Angola usually appears near the bottom of rankings that quantify the ease of doing business in a particular country. The most recent Doing Business report ranks Angola in 179th place out of 189 countries. Corruption is rampant and institutionalised – Angola is ranked 157 out of 176 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. The costs of opening a business are very high, the entrepreneurial climate is fraught with obstacles, and the bureaucracy is gloriously inefficient.

Despite all this, I left my corporate job in New York City earlier this year and moved back to Luanda to start a business.

Angola is constantly in the news because of its economic boom – ever since the war ended in 2002 and the price of oil, the country main export, has soared, the government has become awash in cash. It even has the apparent luxury of ‘bailing out’ Portugal from its current economic crisis – one just has to look at the amount of Angolan money in Lisbon’s stock exchange. However, the entrepreneurial climate in Angola has struggled to keep up and doing business here is a challenging proposition, to put it mildly.

This summer I started an online micro-enterprise in Luanda with two friends. The start-up operates in the hospitality sector, does not have any paid employees, and so far does not yet pay rent in an office. Still, it cost more than $4 000 and took six weeks to open. Even so, this is a great improvement from just two years ago.

Officially, it’s possible to open a business in Angola in just one day at the Guiché Único da Empresa (GUE), a government institution that greatly simplifies the process. The reality, however, is that it takes much longer. But two years ago GUE was not what it is today, and I’ve been able to witness just how much more professional and efficient the institution has become.

Once we had our start-up legalised and our business model prepared, we were ready to start operations and set about finding and contacting potential clients. As any visitor to Luanda will quickly realise, traffic in the capital is an absolute nightmare. If there is ever a study done on just how much Luanda’s traffic negatively impacts the country’s economic output, I’d be first in line to read it. With this in mind, we had to be very creative with how to get the most out of the day, how to meet with different clients in different areas of the city, and how to squeeze in time for a quick lunch. With a bit of finesse, a willingness to experiment, and a very open mind, we learned to adapt our schedules and temper our expectations.

A view of Luanda's Central Business District taken on August 30 2012. (Pic: AFP)
A view of Luanda’s Central Business District taken on August 30 2012. (Pic: AFP)

Each country has its own business culture and its fair share of rather quirky norms. When it comes to communication in Luanda, introductory emails are overly formal and people love to give themselves important titles. Their e-mail signatures are coveted, elaborate markers of glory.

Most people have two phones – one SIM from the country’s two mobile phone networks in each. Nothing gets done on Friday and if Monday is a holiday you can expect people to take Friday and perhaps even Tuesday off.

Pray that your workplace is adequately equipped with a proper generator and water supply, because the city’s infrastructure is very weak. If it rains, chaos will ensue. The city’s roads and sewage system are badly built and not equipped for rain, as the water has nowhere to go. The already dreadful traffic worsens and some areas of the city resemble Venice with its canals.

Luandans have learned not to be overly specific with time and know to give generous leeway when it comes to people arriving late to meetings. Sometimes, the situation is simply outside of their control – in our city, anything can happen on the way from point A to point B.

People love to feel important. Often, in order to speak with the head of a company or a member of government you’ll need to write a letter and coax the secretary into letting your unimportant self speak to her almighty boss. On the other hand, a phone call is always better than an email and a lot of importance is given to interpersonal interactions.

Despite the setbacks and the long list of things that need improvement, the atmosphere in the city is incredibly electric. Money flows and liquidity is high. It seems everyone is hustling, everyone has a side business, everyone has cash money. I get very excited when I see people my age opening their own businesses, acting on their ideas, helping each other out, and generally making a difference, however small.

The most important thing about hustling in Luanda is surrounding yourself with doers and believers – friends and associates who believe in themselves, their ideas and their capacity to help develop this country of ours.

Claudio Silva is Angolan. He has spent time in New York, Washington DC, Lisbon, Reading (UK) and attended university in Boston. In 2009, he started Caipirinha Lounge, a music blog dedicated to Lusophone music. Claudio contributes to several other blogs including Africa is a Country and Central Angola 7311. Connect with him on Twitter.

A night out in the world’s second most expensive city

Luanda: a city where everyone seems to have money, kids drive better cars than some senior execs in New York do and attending a mundane New Year’s Eve party costs at least $100. For the past few years now, the Angolan capital I call home has had the dubious distinction of being ranked as one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, city in the world for expats. The latest reports by Mercer and ECA International rank Luanda second on the list.

Many an article about exorbitant prices has been written by a foreign correspondent while sipping on a $10 latte in one of the city’s $482-a-night hotel rooms. At the notoriously pricey Casa dos Frescos, a supermarket that caters to expats, a melon can cost almost $100 (Luandans jokingly call it melão de ouro or the golden melon), while a rather small burger at the Epic Sana hotel will set you back a cool $25.

Excessive, right? Especially so in a city where an estimated two-thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day. As Lula Ahrens explains in this excellent post, there are two main reasons behind these exorbitant prices: a crippling civil war and general corruption. After three decades of sustained civil war that lasted until 2002, the country’s infrastructure was decimated and important industries such as agriculture and manufacturing never had a chance to develop in an independent Angola. As a result, almost everything has to be imported. Corruption and an entrenched bureaucracy further drive up the price of goods, as does the high demand for limited supply of housing, foodstuffs, and luxury items. Luanda is a booming oil town that attracts expats; they, in turn, demand certain products and services that are in short supply in the country.

If you’re visiting Luanda and want a good time, you’ll need cash – lots of it, preferably in US dollars. Conventional wisdom will tell you that when visiting a foreign city it’s always better to go out with a local, and this could not be truer in Angola. Locals will help you navigate the fluid Luandan nightlife scene and keep the notoriously unfriendly bouncers at bay. The savvy ones will also show you how to party without breaking the bank.

Visitors will quickly realise that there are two Luandas: the formal, established Luanda frequented by expats and the local elites, and the vast, informal, sprawling Luanda of musseques (slums) where the majority of residents live. This divide will immediately become apparent when you notice the sheer number of unemployed street sellers snaking their way through traffic. The streets are Luanda’s true marketplace where many citizens buy their wares. They also shop at open air markets which sell everything from fresh meat to shoes to vacuum cleaners to mirrors.

Luanda cityscape at dusk. (Reuters)
Luanda cityscape at dusk. (Reuters)

As any great night always does, yours should begin with food. On my blog Luanda Nightlife you’ll find many restaurant reviews which are organised by price so you won’t be shocked when your bill arrives. Alternatively, you can always ask locals for restaurant options. The good ones will point you to places where all the foreigners hang out; the best ones will give you the option of eating with Angolans or foreigners. If they decide on the latter, your destination will most likely be the Ilha (Island) area, a peninsula jutting out towards the Atlantic Ocean with one side facing the Luanda Bay and the other facing the Atlantic.

The Ilha is the perfect microcosm of Luanda’s reality: opulence coexisting with abject poverty. For first-time visitors, this juxtaposition of wealth and poverty can be jarring. Porsche Cayennes and BMW X6s compete for space with the city’s ubiquitous candongueiros (taxi vans). You’ll find women in colourful traditional dress on the side streets grilling fish their husbands caught, while down the same street posh restaurants will be serving the same dish to patrons for much, more more.

It is on this strip that you will find some of Luanda’s best restaurants: Cais de Quatro, renowned for its international cuisine and fantastic views of the city from across the bay; Vais e Cais, a bay-side restaurant specialising in fresh seafood; and Luanda’s own Chimarrão, which borrows the rodízio concept from Brazil and turns into an open air club at night. A meal at any of these restaurants costs an average of $60; add about $30 if you plan on having drinks.

Further down the Ilha, past the mansions standing side-by-side with slums, past what was once the zoo, past ‘billionaire’ Isabel dos Santos‘s Miami Beach restaurant, you will find Chill Out, Coconuts and Lookal, which are all rated among the city’s best restaurants. At trendy, cosmopolitan Chill Out don’t expect to pay less than $100 for your full meal. Stay a bit longer and the place will turn into a house-heavy open-air ocean-side club full of expats and ladies of the night. Coconuts is more understated; it’s a favourite among locals and expats alike. Despite its beach-side location there is no party after dinner.

Lookal currently seems to be everyone’s favourite spot. It’s a bar, lounge, restaurant, club and beach all rolled into one; the seafood is fantastic, the beer is cold and the music is loud. Your wallet will be about $70 lighter after a meal here. At night, all the girls and their cash-wielding boyfriends come out and several DJs compete for influence over its vast dance floor. There are regular live shows as well. Last year Taboo from Black Eyed Peas made an appearance; a couple of years before that house DJ Erick Morillo played to a sold-out venue.

If your Angolan guide chooses a restaurant favoured by locals – as a true guide should – you’re in luck and so is your wallet. You see, Angolans are inherently extroverted people who love a good meal and a good party; we’ve been enjoying fantastic food in reasonably priced restaurants well before Luanda made it onto Mercer’s ratings. Among the more down-to-earth restaurants in Luanda is La Vigia, a type of Angolan open-air ‘bistro’ that’s frequented by locals and visitors alike. It’s famous for its massive grilled grouper or any other fish really. A meal here costs about $35.

If you end up on the Ilha anyway, Casa do Peixa da Bela has what many have called the best mufete in town.  This traditional Angolan dish consists of grilled fish accompanied by beans stewed in a palm oil sauce, boiled plantains and a delicious onion and parsley vinaigrette to baste your fish with. In nearby Quintal do Tio Jorge, you can enjoy traditional Angolan cuisine while listening to live Cape Verdean music. It’s in a backyard, it’s not the cleanest, you will probably encounter the local drunkard, but a cold Cuca (the local beer) costs $1.50, the delicious fried squid starter is $10 and a heaped plate of fish with potatoes, palm oil beans and banana won’t cost you more than $15-$20.

 Quintal do Tio Jorge serves the best squid in the city. The restaurant, run by a proud Cape Verdean, has become an institution in Luanda.(Pic: Claudio Silva)
Quintal do Tio Jorge serves the best squid in the city. The restaurant, run by a proud Cape Verdean, has become an institution in Luanda.(Pic: Claudio Silva)

To get your dance on, head to Maiombe instead of Lookal. It’s a genuine Luandan club with booming kizomba, zouk, kuduro and Congolese music. $20 will get you entry and several drinks. W Klub and Brasília are two other local favourites where you can have a decidedly local experience for very reasonable prices. But the best, of course, is to get invited to a proper Angolan party in a resident’s backyard. Those are free and invariably more fun.

Claudio Silva is an Angolan living in New York City. He has also spent time in Washington DC, Lisbon, Reading (UK) and attended university in Boston. In 2009, he started Caipirinha Lounge, a music blog dedicated to Lusophone music. Claudio contributes to several other blogs including Africa is a Country and Central Angola 7311. Connect with him on Twitter.

Angola’s music and politics: An uneasy relationship

Urban music has always been a tool for political expression in Angola. Even before the country’s independence, musicians like Carlitos Vieira Dias, David Zé, and the iconic group N’gola Ritmos offered musical resistance to the colonial regime. Some were even arrested and sent to prison camps by the Portuguese.

Today, the most well known form of Angolan urban music is the ever more popular kuduro. Pulsating and powerful, kuduro is primarily associated with Luanda’s ubiquitous musseques, the teeming slums that house the city’s poorest residents. It’s blasted from candongueiros, the bright blue and white Toyota Hiace minivans that are the form of transport for the vast majority of Luandans, played in seemingly every party and pumped in Luanda’s clubs. Despite its rather middle-class roots, kuduro singers tend to belong to the lower classes and their lyrics cover a wide range of topics, from artists’ feuds to daily hardships.

Kuduro used to be the type of music that your parents would label as trash and tell you not to listen to –  many of them still do. But remarkably, and perhaps due to its appeal across broad sectors of Angolan society, the genre has exploded to become a national phenomenon and a source of national pride. Bands like Buraka Som Sistema have helped internationalise kuduro through sold-out concerts around the world.

The proliferation of kuduro didn’t go unnoticed by the political establishment. Keen and adept at controlling all aspects of civil society, the regime saw in kuduro the perfect vehicle with which to reach the masses. Kuduro concerts are now standard fare in political rallies – politicians will actually use wildly popular kuduro artists as a way to get more people to attend their usually stale public events.

Kuduro fever even reached the presidential palace – by 2011, Coreón Dú, one of President José Eduardo Dos Santos’s sons, became one the biggest promoters of kuduro on the national and international stage. He even released a track of his own (I wouldn’t recommend it):

A singer, TV producer (his media and TV production company receives funds directly from the national budget) and the brains behind the annual “I Love Kuduro” festival in Luanda and abroad, Dú funds and promotes a kuduro troupe appropriately named Os Kuduristas. Last year they embarked on a grand, deep-pocketed world tour, performing extensively in Europe and the US. They were expertly represented by some of the best PR firms in the music industry and even offered workshops in the cities they visited.

Although the government was able to effectively appropriate kuduro for its own purposes, it has been much less successful with the other popular form of Angolan urban music: hip-hop. The youth movement protesting against the Angolan regime and President Dos Santos’s 33 years in power has numerous underground rap musicians among its ranks, including Ikonoklasta (Luaty Beirão) and Carbono Casimiro. Interestingly, Luaty also belongs to the kuduro group Batida, which dabbles in political themes. It doesn’t receive state funding and is not invited to kuduro festivals in the country.

Unlike kuduro, hip-hop is a form of urban music that the establishment has not been able to breach.  The most popular Angolan rappers are the most critical of the regime, and yet they continue to sell out shows and sell out CDs. MCK, the sharp-tongue rapper from the Chabá slums of Luanda, is the most prominent example of this reality. He’s been offered half a million dollars to stop bad-mouthing government and faced death threats, but this doesn’t phase him.

What the government can’t do by peaceful means, it’ll do through coercion, intimidation, and outright sabotage. Last month, Família Eterna, an organisation of rappers from Lobito, a small city in Benguela province, wanted to celebrate their 10-year anniversary. They invited numerous artists, including MCK. Família Eterna followed every possible legal obligation and submitted a total of five different stamped documents (two of which explicitly stated MCK’s name) that gave them government permission to stage the concert.

It was to no avail. Having caught wind that MCK was due to make an appearance in Lobito, the central government began a chilling campaign of intimidation and coercion to force the organisers to cancel the show. According to Família Eterna, the organisers began receiving threatening phone calls in the days leading up to the show; undercover agents dressed in civilian clothes would come to the venue and inquire about the preparations, all the while threatening and intimidating workers.

On the day of the show, the ministry of culture frantically called the organisers in a last ditch attempt to have them cancel; the state-owned electricity company even shut down power to the venue. In the end, MCK still performed, to a much smaller but still energetic crowd.

When compared to kuduro, the disparate treatment of underground rap is evident. What is also evident is that politics will continue to play a role in urban Angolan music, and the regime will continue to interfere as they see fit. But it is comforting to see that even with these abuses against freedom of expression, urban Angolan music continues to impact the establishment. Through music, the disenfranchised continue to have a voice and a vehicle in which to air their grievances, much like their brethren David Zé and N’gola Ritmos did 38 years ago.

Claudio Silva is an Angolan living in New York City. He has also spent time in Washington DC, Lisbon, Reading (UK) and attended university in Boston. In 2009, he started Caipirinha Lounge, a music blog dedicated to Lusophone music. Claudio contributes to several other blogs including Africa is a Country and Central Angola 7311. Connect with him on Twitter.