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Scrambling for Africa: Riaz Currimjee's private equity firm

By Michael Finnigan

It's actually a little difficult to describe Surya Capital because in many ways my partners and I are trying to do something innovative and different, more akin to the 19th-century merchant bank, but in east Africa. Surya is a deal-by-deal principal investment firm, backed by a group of family offices and institutions. It is focused on high-growth markets in east Africa, including Ethiopia.

Rather than take a fund management and fee-maximising approach to investing, we are instead centred on operational expertise, business building, and more flexible corporate structures. Our approach is tailor-made for the African business landscape, with east Africa at the heart. There are still many sectors that are either non-existent or at an early stage in their lifecycle. They require a combination of financial capital, human capital, and intellectual capital. Our model is focused on providing these three factors through customised and flexible platforms with maximum alignment.

Initially we saw limited appetite for investment because of the unfair perception that Africa faces. I believe that fundamentally the developed world has for too long suffered from colonial hang-ups. When meeting investors, I use cover stories from The Economist, which went from Africa “The Hopeless Continent” in 2000 to “Africa Rising” in 2011. These days this slide is no longer needed, which reflects how perceptions have changed.

I gained experience growing up in an industrial family with strong entrepreneurial energy, during my career as an investment banker, and while helping set up a private equity firm in India. While I am very proud of, and close to my family, I always wanted to do my own thing. I also feel that as a family business, we absolutely need to be more meritocratic and less nepotistic, as the world is more competitive than ever. I encouraged these values at Surya.

My great-grandfather founded the family business in 1890, emigrating from India as a penniless young man. At that time, Mauritius was a British colony, having previously been French. For a long time the Mauritian economy was dominated by a few Franco-Mauritian sugar families and one industrial and merchant family, the Currimjees. Thankfully not anymore!

It's not always been plain sailing at the family business. When I was working as an investment banker at Lazard, our textile business was facing significant financial difficulties and eventually went into receivership. In what was a difficult time for the family, we even had to sell our stake in the leading Indian mobile company Bharti Airtel in which we were founding shareholders. We were very close to going from 'slippers to slippers' in three generations, but we focused on family unity. With the invaluable assistance of trusted advisers, we restructured, and built a more professionally managed group, while retaining the core values of our family.

Today, all is well at the family business and my life is Surya and Africa. Our focus is on building leading platform companies across a handful of key sectors: education, healthcare, non-banking financial services, food and agriculture, and logistics – all the sectors that are driven by the middle class. We intend to grow these platforms organically and by acquisition. Focusing on sound execution without having a 'gun to our heads' in terms of exit timing, before looking to monetise partially or fully in due course, when our ability to add incremental value reaches a plateau.

We are looking to deploy around $300 million in east Africa over the next few years, focusing on projects and businesses that we have identified via our proprietary networks and time on the ground. These opportunities take a long time to develop, as they are not 'intermediated' and relationships are not built overnight. We've already had early success with a young and fascinating Ethiopian entrepreneur, with whom we are currently developing the first municipal waste electricity power plant in Addis Ababa. Local entrepreneurs and global investors now recognise that we offer a differentiated and innovative proposition, and that we are in east Africa for the long haul.  

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