Richest Man in Africa Wants a Piece of Brazil

Naguib Sawiris, richest man in Africa The chairman of the board of Wind Telecomunicazioni SpA and Orascom Telecom Holding SAE, Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris, is in the 62nd position in the list of 100 largest fortunes in the world published by Forbes magazine. In 2007 his assets were estimated at US$ 10 billion, the largest in the African continent.

In May last year, the magnate was about to put his feet into the Brazilian business sector, when he made a proposal for the purchase of Brasil Telecom, a company that operates in the fixed and mobile telephony sectors in Brazil. The deal, however, did not go through.

Sawiris prefers not to speak much about the transaction that was not closed, but he admits that he is still eyeing Brazil and is only awaiting an appropriate opportunity in the area of telecommunications to return to thinking about investing in the country.

He, who lives in Cairo, says he is enthusiastic about the positive transformation that is being made in the Egyptian economic scenery. To the businessman, this is one of the best moments for the country's economy. Sawiris believes that the economic renaissance has come to stay, different from the belief of some Egyptian analysts, who believe in a temporary boom.

The executive started working in his family's business, Orascom, in 1979, and since then has contributed to the company's growth and diversification, helping make it what it is today: one of the main Egyptian and global conglomerates.

Orascom group includes Orascom Telecom, Orascom Construction Industry, Orascom Technology System and Orascom Hotels and Development. Since its creation, in 1997, Orascom Telecom Holding has been run by Sawiris, the oldest of the sons in the family.

Orascom Telecom had around 51 million subscribers in 2006, expansion of 70% over 2005, according to the company's most recent annual report. Company revenues were US$ 4.4 billion, 36% more than in 2005. Net profit was US$ 719 million, 8% more than in 2005.

Naguib Sawiris was born in Egypt in 1954, graduated in mechanical engineering by the Swiss Institute of Technology and completed his master's degree in technical administration at the institution. He speaks Arabic, English, German and French. Below is the interview:

You almost bought part of Brasil Telecom. What happened?

Our interest in Brazil arose when we noticed that the investment opportunities in the telecommunications sector have started reducing. At the same time, we heard, last year, about the opportunity of acquiring part of Brazil Telecom. The deal seemed very good to me, as the price was interesting and the prospect of entering Brazil was also good.

I thought it would be a good idea to step into Brazil and, once there, explore the regional investment possibilities. It was a good deal because, as I mentioned earlier, there are currently not many available markets in the telecommunications area. But, unfortunately, the operation was not concluded. I later came to the conclusion that it may have been better like that, due to the difficulties with distance and to the fact that the language and culture are still a little unknown to us.

But have you lost your interest in investing in Brazil?

No, we are still aware of the investment possibilities in the country. If we hear about some great opportunity to enter the country we will do it.

But Brazil has always been called the land of a thousand investment opportunities and is, nowadays, behind Holland, the second country in the list of those attracting the greatest foreign investment…

The fact is that our area of interest is telecommunications and in Brazil the market has already been won by other international corporations, like Telefonica, America Movil and Portugal Telecom. There is, currently, little space for our entry. I had thought about entering the country and creating an independent brand from all our other brands. But in the practical point of view, this idea would be hard to realize now. That is because the groups that I mentioned arrived early and have already consolidated their presence.

Would you not be interested in entering the country by investing in any other sector?

My main area of interest, and of work, is telecommunications. If we hear about any other investment opportunity in the sector we will immediately be interested in it. We basically operate in this area. At a second moment, when our presence is already consolidated in the sector, we may study expanding into other areas, but that can only happen when we are already present and strong in a specific region.

And how do investment opportunities come to your knowledge?

We have our sources. But international banks always warn us when there is a specific opportunity in our area. And when we hear about something of interest, we take the necessary measures to get in contact with the agents of the companies involved.

How was your interest in Brazil born?

Of course the country can no longer go by unnoticed. There is great interest in it. Apart from that, it is a very pleasant place with nice people, where I have already spent holidays and enjoyed it. I am sure that there will still be other opportunities to work with the country.

Today you are one of the largest businessmen in Egypt and your company is a giant that controls a great part of the telecommunications market, so much so that many people consider you a source of hope for the country, due to your modern, civilized style of running the business and managing your companies. How has Orascom Holding contributed to improve the life of Egyptians?

Before anything, nobody can deny that we are today one of the largest employers in Egypt, one of the companies that generate the largest number of job opportunities. We are also among the largest income tax payers in the country. For this reason I am sure that we contribute to the improvement of government resources, so that it may serve the population better.

Apart from that, we have a number of philanthropic projects guided, mainly, to the young. We supply micro credit to the young who have projects for the establishment of micro companies. We grant 40 scholarships a year to students interested in specialisations in the best universities in Europe or the United States, under the condition that they agree to return to work in Egypt.

We also have the Sawiris Foundation, which provides assistance to Egyptian NGOs specialised in the training of youths. After all, we are greatly concentrated in work connected to the multiplication of labour opportunities, education and training of new generations.

And as one of the main contributors to the country's revenue services, how do you evaluate the work of the Egyptian government?

I find the team that runs the current government excellent; the best Egypt has had since the 1952 revolution.

What is your analysis of the Egyptian economy?

In my point of view Egypt is moving in the right direction and its economy is, undoubtedly, going to bloom. Nowadays there is a very great volume of funds and liquidity in the countries of the Gulf. These funds are being invested in Egypt, due to the country's capacity for absorption and, mainly, due to its important market.

But many Egyptian analysts say that the current economic boom is temporary and is not going to last more than 3 or 4 years…

This kind of analysis makes no sense, in my opinion. I, who am currently one of the important pillars of this economy, who am within the country's "economic kitchen", believe that these analysts are all simply wrong.



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