Angola rises now war is over

Luanda is a city of contrasts: modernity and wealth flourish alongside slums, but eight years after the end of a long civil war, this oil-rich country in west Africa is building and moving ahead.

Luanda, Angola: May 28, 2010:  A woman walks past the showroom for the new luxury apartment building, Torre Ambiante, the slogan for the new building is "Viver em Plenitude" or "Live in Plentitude". Lauren Lancaster / The National
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LUANDA // Rising just a few feet from the waters of the bay at Luanda is the elliptical Torre Ambiente, one of more than a dozen luxury towers rising on the skyline of Angola's capital city. The 27-storey building with the motto "Viver em plenitude" (live in plenitude) makes for a powerful study in contrasts. Asking prices for penthouse apartments are about US$1,000 (Dh3,673) a square foot, more than the current prices of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

"This will be the most luxurious building in Luanda," says Marco Figueiredo Cardoso, the sales director of the Torre Ambiente, as he checks off the features: restaurants, pool club, other high-end amenities. The homes cater to the upper echelon of Luanda, oil executives, diamond traders and, of course, government officials. Angola's oil production of about 1.9 million barrels a day surpassed Nigeria's last year to become the largest output of crude in Africa.

The Torre Ambiente apartments will have southern views of the Kinaxixe, a neighbourhood with a tower that was halted midway through construction and occupied by squatters. It is a vertical slum where people live precariously close to balconies with no railings. There is no electricity, save for generators, or plumbing. Passers-by can see refuse simply thrown from the building on to the surrounding streets.

The new high-rises, including the Torre Ambiente, being built among Luanda's slums represent Angola in transition. The country emerged eight years ago from a devastating, almost 30-year civil war and has been building ever since. The conditions are similar to Iraq in that there had been no construction despite a growing population and increasing need in critical areas such as health care, education and housing.

"Everything was dedicated to the war effort," says Ricardo Gazel, a senior economist at the World Bank in Angola. "Now that is over, they need to build everything." The sharp need for housing and office space has made Luanda the world's most expensive city for expatriates, according to ECA International. Rent for a basic two or three-bedroom apartment can cost $20,000 a month, paid a year in advance. A sandwich at Pinto's, a restaurant in the financial district, costs $20.

While the country took a hit during the global financial crisis with the drop in the price of oil, it still has a thriving economy, Mr Gazel says. The IMF lent Angola $1.4 billion last year to help it continue with crucial projects in the global economic downturn, and the country is expected to tap global bond markets in the years to come. Moody's Investors Service recently rated Angola as "B1", while Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's gave it a rating of "B plus". It was previously unrated.

So far, the mix of property developers, building materials suppliers and consultants primarily comes from Portugal and Brazil. Chinese companies have a growing presence, especially with infrastructure and large-scale housing projects. Signs for companies such as Soares da Costa, a Portuguese developer, and Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company, can be seen throughout the downtown and Ilha, a strip of an island that is home to the high-end nightlife establishments of the city, marinas, markets and ramshackle housing.

But companies from the Gulf are starting to take notice of Luanda. Emirates Airline recently began a direct flight from Dubai three times a week. TAAG, the Angolan national airline, also flies to Dubai. Riad Kamal, the chairman of Arabtec Construction, based in the UAE, last week said his company was pushing into other countries, including Angola. "We are not willing to cut down on margins; we are looking at markets outside the UAE," Mr Kamal said, according to media reports. "We are moving into Angola and Turkmenistan and North Africa, where margins are healthier."

Zaya, a niche Abu Dhabi developer, has signed a memorandum of understanding to build luxury waterfront homes in Angola. Zaya is finishing the ultra-exclusive Nurai Island project off Saadiyat Island. Markus Giebel, the former chief executive of Deyaar Development, is also in talks to take part in building projects in Angola. Investment vehicles are being set up to help funnel Gulf money into Angolan property projects. Ridge Solutions, an Angolan company with interests in property, agriculture, mining and industry, opened offices in Hong Kong and Dubai last year.

The company is marketing plots in its large-scale projects, such as Garden of Eden outside Luanda, to foreign companies. The company has 23 projects under way, representing about 24 million sq ft. "There has been a lot of progress since even 2005, but the process of doing things can be very difficult with licensing and permits and bureaucratic things," says Andre Nicolau, the head of property development at Ridge Solutions. "We are creating ways for foreign companies and investors to get involved here."

Ridge Solutions, which counts two former employees of Aldar Properties as members of its property team, is a sponsor of the Williams Formula One team and is developing plans for Luanda to have its own Grand Prix circuit. Even more dramatic than the changing skyline of Luanda is a suburb south of the city called Luanda Sul, which is teeming with new business parks and housing projects. The area is home to a modern shopping mall known as Belas, cloistered villa developments and hundreds of construction sites.

Luanda was built for a population of 500,000 during Portugal's colonial rule, but the population is now about 5 million. To reduce the size of the musseques, or slums, that surround the centre of the city, the government is pushing to move large sections of the population into Luanda Sul. Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been the country's president since 1979, has pledged to build a million homes in the next several years. Many of those will be prefabricated abroad and shipped to Angola.

What is clear in the meantime is many frontier businessmen are making their fortunes on the rapid growth of the Angolan economy. "A lot of people have become dollar millionaires here," says Dirk, a South African contractor, as he looks out on yachts at the marina on the Ilha.