Luanda – An African Heart Pumping To A Latin Beat By John Thompson

Arriving in Luanda for the first time, a visitor may be forgiven for harbouring negative preconceptions of the city stemming from the real dearth of information available. Luanda is often written off as the dusty capital city of a sub-Saharan African country, irreparably ravaged by a brutal civil war, rife with malaria, yellow fever, crime, slums and until recently topping the most expensive city in the world table. These preconceptions are real. However, the city is as varied, interesting and complex as any and cannot be defined by its negative attributes. Luanda is the adolescent capital city of an extremely young (10 years post-conflict) Angola. It is a unique city with a Latin and African heritage that is still rediscovering how its infrastructure and people work.

First impressions

The first thing to strike visitors about Luanda is the sheer volume of traffic. Hours are spent in the car as powerful SUVs try to out-muscle public transport minibuses. This seems to be an accepted part of Luandan life and locals and expats have been forced to adapt to the flexible working hours necessitated by the jams and pot holed roads. Wider, faster roads are being built as part of huge investment in Luanda and Angola’s infrastructure (www.angola-today.com/angola/transport-and-infrastructure)  and they work well- the ring road and the highway to the new international airport are fine examples of what has already been achieved.

Building the future

If the city is dusty, it is because the dust has never been given the chance to settle in the wake of Angola’s stratospheric ascent. Luanda, much like Dubai in the noughties, is a building site. It is without doubt one of Africa’s leading business centres and the face of the city is ever changing; sky scrapers seem to spring up on an almost monthly basis – to accommodate international companies upgrading their permanent bases in Angola and domestic firms making their mark.  There are familiar names of international professional and financial services firms festooning sparkling new edifices erected by Chinese companies who themselves take up their fair share of premium real estate.

Luanda’s population is racing toward the six million mark whilst the city was only ever intended for fewer than one million. The investment in infrastructure is much needed – this kind of growth spurt puts a huge demand on the beleaguered energy grid and waste management systems. Industrial parks like the Special Economic Zone in Viana (www.angola-today.com/2012/07/special-economic-zone-in-viana-angola) are part of the self-sustainability solution equipping projects with products like plastic tubing, paints, fencing and fibre optics.

Fuelling the economy

The petrochemical (www.angola-today.com/key-industries/oil-gas) giants and associated oil services firms have been in Angola for over thirty years. It is hard to take a step in Luanda without seeing the distinctive livery of state oil company Sonangol, and BP has recently taken a prime spot downtown looking out over the Atlantic and the sea front development affectionately dubbed “Miami Beach.” The SONILS (http://sonils.co.ao) complex next to the port of Luanda is one of the most sophisticated OSCs – Oil Srevice Centres (http://sonils.co.ao) in Africa and includes unrivalled logistics and laboratory facilities.

Although recent years have seen large scale investment from big ticket brands like Coca-Cola, which has now invested over $300m USD (www.allafrica.com/stories), until the economy diversifies out, the petro-dollar is really the factor drawing in international businesses and their expat workforce. Flights from Houston, Rio and Aberdeen (via London) bring in the riggers, scientists, engineers, analysts, and lawyers on a daily basis. This international mix is a double edged sword – on the one hand, it lends Luanda a cosmopolitan feeling and exposure to the requisite professional mores that big business expects – on the other, the expats and their subsidised existence artificially drive up rental and consumer prices for native Angolans.

Latin legacy

Even 37 years after declaring its independence from Portugal, Angola still retains a Latino sensibility meshed seamlessly with an African personality. This identity is enchanting and extends into the gastronomy, beach culture and night life.  Luanda’s Ilha, a spit of sand that juts out into the Atlantic from the down town area, has developed into a hedonistic haven replete with stunning beach bars, high end restaurants and night clubs hosting a multinational crowd of locals, expats and travelers. The food on offer is incredibly varied – from Asian to Brazilian and fusions of anything in between – the local preference is for grills, in particular fresh seafood or meat. The nightclubs like Chill-Out and Look Al spill out onto the beaches and have a unique vibe.

Most expensive city in the world

Whilst prices remain eye-wateringly expensive, Luanda is making its way down the “Most Expensive City” league tables, having been knocked off the top spot this year by Tokyo. As the economy recovers from dependence on imports and agriculture and infrastructure improves, food prices are noticeably dropping. By the same token, supply is beginning to meet demand in the hotel market as international operators move in and compete; it is now possible to secure a rate of c.$300 per night for a four star hotel, whilst five star outfits like the Epic Sana (www.luanda.epic.sanahotels.com/en) offer international standards in luxury including roof top swimming pools and world renowned chefs at top end rates.

Poverty gap

The juxtaposition of the swanky hotels serving $50 burgers and the road side vendors scratching a living selling knock-off designer jeans, mobile phone credit and trinkets serves to highlight the well-documented polarisation of the country. Angola has focused in recent years on bridging the gap between the mega rich and the cripplingly impoverished. There is still a long way to go towards meeting the millennium goals – however, a visit to Angola’s first shopping mall at Belas does indicate a nascent middle class and mid-level retail and food outlets sit comfortably between designer boutiques and glitzy technology stores – the development of further more central retail centres is also testament to this. A walk around the musseques of Luanda, where the shanty houses are undergoing a process of census, revealed evidence that the long-awaited relocation from the slums to modern developments is underway, albeit slowly and amidst enormous controversy over timings and the breaking up of communities.

An African heart pumping to a Latin beat

Luanda is a fascinating and undeniably frustrating place to be in 2012. However, there is a palpable sense that, having passed the ten years of peace mark, Angola is on the brink of achieving something great. The locals are steadfast in their resolve to look forward and to realise this potential. With stable leadership, the chocks holding Luanda’s human capital back (poor education, health, housing problems) can gradually be released. When that happens, everyone in Luanda from the musseques to the Miramar has the ambition to realise this potential.