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MOZAMBIQUE - Economy

Nuno Quelhas

CEO, Whatana Investments

Bio

Nuno Quelhas is CEO of Whatana Investments.

"We believe that investing in building a critical mass of skilled individuals is paramount for the long-term success of Mozambique’s digital transformation journey."
What is the background and current focus of Whatana as an investment holding company?

Whatana is an investment holding company that started in 2005. Over the past two decades, we have undertaken around 10 investments and divested from some. Currently, we have four active projects including Vodacom and M-PESA, Bayport, as well as ownership in a distribution business called On Time. Our focus lies predominantly within the consumer-based sectors, catering to the needs of Mozambique’s 35 million citizens, with an eye on the projected population growth to 70 million by 2050. We anticipate potential economic growth, particularly with the development of oil and gas projects, which could bolster GDP per capita and enhance Mozambique’s overall prospects. While we remain concentrated on our existing sectors, we have recently collaborated with Adanian Labs to drive technological transformation in the country. Our strategy revolves around three core dimensions: expanding technological infrastructure coverage, enhancing financial services through platforms such as M-PESA, and fostering a digital economy conducive to innovation and entrepreneurship. By prioritizing these initiatives, we aim to address unemployment by empowering individuals to participate in the economy as entrepreneurs. Through our partnership with Adanian Labs, led by John Kamara, we aim to cultivate a skilled workforce in technology, with a particular emphasis on coding. By equipping Mozambicans with these essential skills, we not only accelerate corporate projects, but also lay the groundwork for sustainable digitalization and technological advancement in the country. We believe that investing in building a critical mass of skilled individuals is paramount for the long-term success of Mozambique’s digital transformation journey.

How do you envision the Mozambican population engaging with tools like M-PESA?

In this region, two distinct economic development models are emerging. Southern Africa, led by South Africa, follows a top-down approach where large corporations dictate solutions pushed through various tiers to consumers. However, this model often neglects the diverse needs of consumers, particularly in rural areas, as it is based on urban-centric perspectives. On the other hand, East Africa, exemplified by countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, and Rwanda, adopts a grassroots-up approach. Here, innovation stems from local initiatives and gradually scales up to benefit larger populations. This bottom-up model ensures that solutions are tailored to meet the specific needs of communities, resulting in more effective outcomes for both consumers and businesses. In Mozambique, adherence to a top-down model influenced by South African philosophy hampers innovation, as solutions are noy tailored to local needs. For instance, it took five years for M-PESA to gain acceptance due to initial skepticism regarding the handling of finances by external entities. Quicker progress could be achieved by involving people in the development and decision-making processes, ensuring solutions resonate with their realities. Additionally, Mozambique’s innovation pace is hindered by a bureaucratic and rules-based approach , in contrast to the principle-based approach seen in countries like Kenya or Tanzania. I advocate for empowering the private sector with funding to drive innovation. Despite the urgency, decision-making is hindered by the upcoming election cycle. However, it is crucial to initiate the process now to ensure continuity and momentum for future administrations. Personally, my primary focus is on technology and digital transformation. While I am committed to investing in this area, I recognize the challenges ahead, including the need for regulatory support and a stable fiscal environment. Presently, fiscal instability and unpredictable government policies hinder progress, making it essential to navigate economic uncertainties strategically.

Is Whatana currently open to forming new partnerships?

Currently, we are undergoing restructuring and have established a sister company in UAE at the DIFC, which will serve as our primary hub for capital raising. During this period, we are not actively seeking new ventures. Once the restructuring is complete in 12-18 months, we will resume discussions and consider the new presidential administration’s approach. While potential oil and gas projects present opportunities, uncertainties remain, as evidenced by previous projects like the power plant with Vale and the fertilizer project with YARA, which ultimately did not materialize despite extensive development efforts. Given the current turbulence, our strategy is to maintain a steady course and await clearer conditions before reassessing our position.

What opportunities for investment do you see in Mozambique at the moment for investors who are willing to enter the country?

Investors interested in Africa must prioritize patient capital, understanding that quick returns are rare in economies prone to fluctuation. Opportunities abound for those with long-term investment horizons, especially in infrastructure development like roads, rail, ports and telecom, where upgrades are essential, even in basic technologies like 2 and 3G. Electrification is crucial, with decentralized power solutions offering promise, particularly in rural areas where grid expansion is costly. Despite concerns about scalability, smaller-scale projects, such as decentralized power hubs, offer viable opportunities often overlooked by larger investors.

Is Whatana also focused on empowering local economies and their population?

As a lifelong resident of Mozambique, my success is intertwined with the country’s prosperity. I am committed to initiatives such as the Adanian Lab project, aiming to train 1,000’s of youths over the coming years. This investment is not solely altruistic; I recognize its economic value. Skilled individuals can bolster sectors like banking and technology, addressing critical shortages seen in endeavors such as M-PESA integration with banks. By comparison, countries like Kenya boast larger, more dynamic technology ecosystems, enabling rapid scalability and cost-effectiveness. In Mozambique, the lack of critical mass results in slower progress and higher costs. Through initiatives like the Adanian Lab, we aim to cultivate a vibrant, skilled workforce that can drive innovation and economic growth in the long term.

What are your plans and goals for Whatana for 2024?

2024 is a year for waiting and watching for a variety of different reasons. Significant global changes loom, marked by around 70 elections worldwide, rendering the political landscape highly unpredictable. Given some political uncertainties, a cautious wait-and-see approach seems prudent. There is hope that the economy may improve. However, until there is more clarity on these matters, making predictions for the year is difficult. Therefore, it will be a year of cautious waiting and fortifying resilience, aiming to emerge stronger by the end of 2024, with an eye toward 2025.

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