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Off-grid Power Pioneers Pour Into West Africa

Standing by a towering equatorial forest, Jean-Noel Kouame’s new breeze-block house may be beyond the reach of Ivory Coast’s power grid, but it’s perfectly located for solar power entrepreneurs.

Buoyed by success in East Africa, off-grid solar power startups are pouring into West Africa, offering pay-as-you-go kits in a race to claim tens of millions of customers who lack reliable access to electricity.

At least 11 companies, including leading East African players such as Greenlight Planet, d.light, Off-Grid Electric (OGE), M-KOPE Solar, Fenix International and BBOXX, have moved into the region, most within the last two years.

With a potential market worth billions of dollars, major European energy companies such as French utilities EDF and Engie are taking notice too.

“It’s important to be there now, because the race has already started,” said Marianne Laigneau, senior executive vice president of EDF’s international division.

The main challenge facing smaller companies now is how to raise enough capital to supply the expensive solar kits in return for small upfront payments from customers.

Mobilizing funding for firms providing home solar systems is also part of the U.S. government’s Power Africa initiative.

Major power generation projects have been slow to get off the ground so Power Africa has partnered with startups such as OGE, M-KOPE and d.light, among others, to accelerate off-grid access.

In Abidjan, Kouame doesn’t know when, or if, the national grid will reach the outer edge of the urban sprawl, but thanks to his new solar panel kit he has indoor lighting, an electric fan and a television.

But it’s the light bulb hanging outside his front door that he values the most.

“At night we were scared to go outside,” the 31-year-old taxi driver says as his pregnant wife watches a dubbed Brazilian soap opera. “Where there is light there is safety.”

Some 1.2 billion people around the world have no access to a power grid, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Lighting and phone charging alone costs them about $27 billion a year and some estimates put their total annual energy costs at more than $60 billion.

While governments in much of the developing world are extending access to national networks, Africa is lagging, with less than 40 percent of African households connected, IEA figures show.

But what has long been decried as a major obstacle to Africa’s development is viewed as an opportunity by entrepreneurs such as Nir Marom, co-founder of Lumos Global, the Dutch startup that built and sold Kouame his kit.

“I read an article about people paying 50 cents a day for kerosene and candles, and that just didn’t make sense,” said Marom. “I said I can give them four kilowatt hours for the price of kerosene. And that started everything.”

Off-grid expansion

Lumos Global’s kits, which cost about $600, include a solar panel linked to a battery that supports power sockets, a mobile phone adapter and LED light bulbs.

Kouame, who paid 30,000 CFA francs ($57) upfront for his kit, is now leasing-to-own. A digital counter on the yellow battery pack tells him when he needs to top up his account using his mobile phone.

If he doesn’t pay, the kit, which also houses a global positioning system, shuts down. But in five years, he’ll own it outright and his solar power will be free.

“Five years is nothing,” he says, already weighing the option of another system to run a large freezer sitting empty and unplugged in the corner of his living room. “So my wife can do a little business.”

Pay-as-you-go solar home systems (SHS) like Kouame’s have been the main driver of off-grid power expansion in Africa.

In 2010, when most purchases were limited to simple lighting systems, customers spent $30 to $80 on average over a product’s lifetime, according to GOGLA, an independent off-grid industry association.

Now it’s $370 to $1,120.

Global revenues from the pay-as-you-go SHS sector were $150 million to $200 million in 2016, GOGLA estimates. That should jump to $6 billion to $7 billion in 2022.

Most of the main players in West Africa cut their teeth in East Africa, drawn by the widespread use of mobile money transfers, a key element of the pay-as-you-go off-grid model.

Success there drove annual sector-wide growth of about 140 percent from 2013 to 2016. But as the East African market becomes more crowded and mobile money services spread across the continent, many are now heading west.

“I remember doing a market sizing very early on and from a number of metrics West Africa was a better market,” said Xavier Helgesen, CEO of Tanzania-based Off-Grid Electric (OGE), one of the sector leaders.

About half of the overall African off-grid population are in West and Central Africa, according to the IEA. Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest economy and most populous nation, is  alone home to roughly 90 million people with no grid access.

Lumos is an outlier to the extent it picked West Africa as its first market. It launched in Nigeria in 2016 and by the end of 2017 had sold 73,000 kits and was averaging 16 percent month-on-month revenue growth. Late last year, it expanded into Ivory Coast, French-speaking West Africa’s largest economy.

Still, despite the rapid growth to date, off-grid solar startups say more must be done to improve the capacity of solar home systems and to bring down their cost so the sector can reach its full potential.

“I don’t believe off-grid electrification is a stop-gap,” said Jamie Evans, director of partnerships with d.light.

“I believe it’s here to stay. If the price of batteries starts dropping precipitously, then it will almost certainly change the face of the industry,” he said.

Capital  intensive

The need to provide consumer financing for the relatively expensive kits means expansion requires significant capital.

But banks, lacking expertise in the new sector, often shy away from lending to off-grid companies, said Rolake Akinkugbe, head of energy at Nigeria’s FBNQuest Merchant Bank.

“There’s also a size issue. Most of the off-grid solutions, particularly those that deal with pay-as-you-go, from a funding perspective, are not within the threshold for banks,” she said.

That means startups have largely relied on venture capital, impact investors looking to generate social benefits as well as a profit, and development finance institutions. But the model has its drawbacks.

“Right now off-grid companies are having to constantly fundraise,” said Lyndsay Handler, CEO of Uganda-based Fenix International.

In what was considered a milestone in the African off-grid sector, Engie bought Fenix in October.

With access to Engie’s capital, Handler says Fenix aims to become a pan-African off-grid leader, serving millions in the near term and tens of millions further down the road.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars of investment are needed to have the impact we want to have,” she said.

Facing stagnating customer growth in their home markets, European energy companies such as Engie are increasingly looking abroad. Africa’s underserved, growing population is seen by many as the future.

The number of Africans without grid access actually increased by nearly 14 percent between 2000 and 2016 to 588 million people. By 2030, the IEA estimates that some 80 percent of the global off-grid population will be in sub-Saharan Africa.

Raphael Tilot, Engie Africa’s head of customer solutions, likens off-grid solar to the rise of the mobile phone, which leap-frogged landline networks on the continent.

“Today, no one is thinking about putting telecom wires to individual houses in these places. You can look at energy in the same way today,” he said. “Mini-grids or solar home systems are a far better solution.”

In addition to Engie, French giants Total and EDF also hold stakes in off-grid startups, or are partnering with them. Italian utility Enel and Germany’s E.ON are investing in solar mini-grid companies.

Evidence of the market growth is on exhibit on Kouame’s hillside in Abidjan, where several rooftops, including his neighbor’s, are now crowned with solar panels.

“He asked me how it worked,” Kouame smiles. “Then he went and bought one of his own.”

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Off-grid Power Pioneers Pour Into West Africa

Standing by a towering equatorial forest, Jean-Noel Kouame’s new breeze-block house may be beyond the reach of Ivory Coast’s power grid, but it’s perfectly located for solar power entrepreneurs.

Buoyed by success in East Africa, off-grid solar power startups are pouring into West Africa, offering pay-as-you-go kits in a race to claim tens of millions of customers who lack reliable access to electricity.

At least 11 companies, including leading East African players such as Greenlight Planet, d.light, Off-Grid Electric (OGE), M-KOPE Solar, Fenix International and BBOXX, have moved into the region, most within the last two years.

With a potential market worth billions of dollars, major European energy companies such as French utilities EDF and Engie are taking notice too.

“It’s important to be there now, because the race has already started,” said Marianne Laigneau, senior executive vice president of EDF’s international division.

The main challenge facing smaller companies now is how to raise enough capital to supply the expensive solar kits in return for small upfront payments from customers.

Mobilizing funding for firms providing home solar systems is also part of the U.S. government’s Power Africa initiative.

Major power generation projects have been slow to get off the ground so Power Africa has partnered with startups such as OGE, M-KOPE and d.light, among others, to accelerate off-grid access.

In Abidjan, Kouame doesn’t know when, or if, the national grid will reach the outer edge of the urban sprawl, but thanks to his new solar panel kit he has indoor lighting, an electric fan and a television.

But it’s the light bulb hanging outside his front door that he values the most.

“At night we were scared to go outside,” the 31-year-old taxi driver says as his pregnant wife watches a dubbed Brazilian soap opera. “Where there is light there is safety.”

Some 1.2 billion people around the world have no access to a power grid, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Lighting and phone charging alone costs them about $27 billion a year and some estimates put their total annual energy costs at more than $60 billion.

While governments in much of the developing world are extending access to national networks, Africa is lagging, with less than 40 percent of African households connected, IEA figures show.

But what has long been decried as a major obstacle to Africa’s development is viewed as an opportunity by entrepreneurs such as Nir Marom, co-founder of Lumos Global, the Dutch startup that built and sold Kouame his kit.

“I read an article about people paying 50 cents a day for kerosene and candles, and that just didn’t make sense,” said Marom. “I said I can give them four kilowatt hours for the price of kerosene. And that started everything.”

Off-grid expansion

Lumos Global’s kits, which cost about $600, include a solar panel linked to a battery that supports power sockets, a mobile phone adapter and LED light bulbs.

Kouame, who paid 30,000 CFA francs ($57) upfront for his kit, is now leasing-to-own. A digital counter on the yellow battery pack tells him when he needs to top up his account using his mobile phone.

If he doesn’t pay, the kit, which also houses a global positioning system, shuts down. But in five years, he’ll own it outright and his solar power will be free.

“Five years is nothing,” he says, already weighing the option of another system to run a large freezer sitting empty and unplugged in the corner of his living room. “So my wife can do a little business.”

Pay-as-you-go solar home systems (SHS) like Kouame’s have been the main driver of off-grid power expansion in Africa.

In 2010, when most purchases were limited to simple lighting systems, customers spent $30 to $80 on average over a product’s lifetime, according to GOGLA, an independent off-grid industry association.

Now it’s $370 to $1,120.

Global revenues from the pay-as-you-go SHS sector were $150 million to $200 million in 2016, GOGLA estimates. That should jump to $6 billion to $7 billion in 2022.

Most of the main players in West Africa cut their teeth in East Africa, drawn by the widespread use of mobile money transfers, a key element of the pay-as-you-go off-grid model.

Success there drove annual sector-wide growth of about 140 percent from 2013 to 2016. But as the East African market becomes more crowded and mobile money services spread across the continent, many are now heading west.

“I remember doing a market sizing very early on and from a number of metrics West Africa was a better market,” said Xavier Helgesen, CEO of Tanzania-based Off-Grid Electric (OGE), one of the sector leaders.

About half of the overall African off-grid population are in West and Central Africa, according to the IEA. Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest economy and most populous nation, is  alone home to roughly 90 million people with no grid access.

Lumos is an outlier to the extent it picked West Africa as its first market. It launched in Nigeria in 2016 and by the end of 2017 had sold 73,000 kits and was averaging 16 percent month-on-month revenue growth. Late last year, it expanded into Ivory Coast, French-speaking West Africa’s largest economy.

Still, despite the rapid growth to date, off-grid solar startups say more must be done to improve the capacity of solar home systems and to bring down their cost so the sector can reach its full potential.

“I don’t believe off-grid electrification is a stop-gap,” said Jamie Evans, director of partnerships with d.light.

“I believe it’s here to stay. If the price of batteries starts dropping precipitously, then it will almost certainly change the face of the industry,” he said.

Capital  intensive

The need to provide consumer financing for the relatively expensive kits means expansion requires significant capital.

But banks, lacking expertise in the new sector, often shy away from lending to off-grid companies, said Rolake Akinkugbe, head of energy at Nigeria’s FBNQuest Merchant Bank.

“There’s also a size issue. Most of the off-grid solutions, particularly those that deal with pay-as-you-go, from a funding perspective, are not within the threshold for banks,” she said.

That means startups have largely relied on venture capital, impact investors looking to generate social benefits as well as a profit, and development finance institutions. But the model has its drawbacks.

“Right now off-grid companies are having to constantly fundraise,” said Lyndsay Handler, CEO of Uganda-based Fenix International.

In what was considered a milestone in the African off-grid sector, Engie bought Fenix in October.

With access to Engie’s capital, Handler says Fenix aims to become a pan-African off-grid leader, serving millions in the near term and tens of millions further down the road.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars of investment are needed to have the impact we want to have,” she said.

Facing stagnating customer growth in their home markets, European energy companies such as Engie are increasingly looking abroad. Africa’s underserved, growing population is seen by many as the future.

The number of Africans without grid access actually increased by nearly 14 percent between 2000 and 2016 to 588 million people. By 2030, the IEA estimates that some 80 percent of the global off-grid population will be in sub-Saharan Africa.

Raphael Tilot, Engie Africa’s head of customer solutions, likens off-grid solar to the rise of the mobile phone, which leap-frogged landline networks on the continent.

“Today, no one is thinking about putting telecom wires to individual houses in these places. You can look at energy in the same way today,” he said. “Mini-grids or solar home systems are a far better solution.”

In addition to Engie, French giants Total and EDF also hold stakes in off-grid startups, or are partnering with them. Italian utility Enel and Germany’s E.ON are investing in solar mini-grid companies.

Evidence of the market growth is on exhibit on Kouame’s hillside in Abidjan, where several rooftops, including his neighbor’s, are now crowned with solar panels.

“He asked me how it worked,” Kouame smiles. “Then he went and bought one of his own.”

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How US Coal Deal Warms Ukraine’s Ties With Trump

For the first time in Ukraine’s history, U.S. anthracite is helping to keep the lights on and the heating going this winter following a deal that has also helped to warm Kyiv’s relations with President Donald Trump.

The Ukrainian state-owned company that imported the coal told Reuters that the deal made commercial sense. But it was also politically expedient, according to a person involved in the talks on the agreement and power industry insiders.

On Trump’s side it provided much-needed orders for a coal-producing region of the United States which was a vital constituency in his 2016 presidential election victory.

On the Ukrainian side the deal helped to win favor with the White House, whose support Kyiv needs in its conflict with Russia, as well as opening up a new source of coal at a time when its traditional supplies are disrupted.

Trump’s campaign call to improve relations with the Kremlin alarmed the pro-Western leadership in Ukraine, which lost Crimea to Russia in 2014 and is still fighting pro-Moscow separatists.

However, things looked up when President Petro Poroshenko visited the White House on June 20 last year.

“The meeting with Trump was a key point, a milestone,” a Ukrainian government source told Reuters, requesting anonymity.

The Americans had set particular store by supplying coal to Ukraine. 

“I felt that for them it is important,” said the source, who was present at the talks that also included a session with Vice President Mike Pence.

Despite Trump’s incentives, U.S. utilities are shutting coal-fired plants and shifting to gas, wind and solar power.

Ailing U.S. mining companies are therefore boosting exports to Asia and seeking new buyers among eastern European countries trying to diversify from Russian supplies.

Trump, who championed U.S. coal producers on the campaign trail, pressed the message after meeting Poroshenko. 

“Ukraine already tells us they need millions and millions of metric tons right now,” he said in a speech nine days later. “We want to sell it to them, and to everyone else all over the globe who need it.”

The deal with Kyiv was sealed the following month, after which U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said: “As promised during the campaign, President Trump is unshackling American energy with each day on the job.”

The deal helped to “bolster a key strategic partner against regional pressures that seek to undermine U.S. interests,” Ross added, referring to past Russian attempts to restrict natural gas flows to its western neighbors.

A matter of necessity

Ukraine was once a major producer of anthracite, a coal used in power generation, but it has faced a shortage in recent winters as it lost control of almost all its mines in eastern areas to the separatists.

Along with South Africa, Ukrainian-owned mines in Russia have been the main source of anthracite imports but this is fraught with uncertainty. In the past Moscow has cut off gas supplies to the country over disputes with Kyiv, while the Ukrainian government considered forbidding anthracite imports from Russia in 2017 although no ban has yet been imposed.

Overall anthracite imports shot up to 3.05 million tons in the first 11 months of 2017 from just 0.05 million in all of 2013 — the year before the rebellion erupted.

Neighboring Poland, which Trump visited in July, is also turning increasingly to U.S. coal. Its imports from the United States jumped five-fold last year to 839,000 tons, data from the state-run ARP agency showed.

In July Ukrainian state-owned energy company Centrenergo announced the deal with U.S. company Xcoal for the supply of up to 700,000 tons of anthracite.

Centrenergo initially said it would pay $113 per ton for the first shipment, a price industry experts and traders told Reuters was expensive compared with alternatives.

However, chief executive Oleg Kozemko said the cost varied according to the quality of the coal delivered, so Centrenergo had paid around $100 per ton on average for the 410,000 tons supplied by the end of 2017.

Kozemko said in an interview that the U.S. deal was Centrenergo’s only viable option after three tenders it launched earlier last year had failed.

“The idea to sign a contract with Xcoal was a matter of necessity,” he said. “We had agreements but they didn’t work out, because the pricing that they discussed with us and that we signed an agreement on didn’t work out.”

Data on the state tenders registry and documents seen by Reuters show that two of the tenders failed due to a lack of bids, while the results of the third were cancelled.

If that contract had worked out, Centrenergo would have paid around $96 per ton, according to Reuters calculations based on the exchange rate at the time of the tender in April.

Energy expert Andriy Gerus told Reuters the Xcoal deal “probably helps Ukraine to build some good political connections with the USA and that is quite important right now.”

 

Mutual desire 

The anthracite for Centrenergo is mined in Pennsylvania, which backed Trump in 2016. This marked the first time a Republican presidential candidate had won the state since 1988, and followed Trump’s pledge to reverse the coal industry’s history of plant closures and lay-offs in recent years.

Centrenergo says it and Xcoal agreed the contract independently of their governments and without any political pressure. However, Kozemko said: “If talks between the heads of our countries helped in this, then we can only say thank you… It was a mutual desire.”

For the Ukrainian authorities, the diplomatic benefit is clear. When the first shipment of U.S. anthracite arrived in September, Poroshenko tweeted a photo of himself shaking hands with Trump in Washington. 

“As agreed with @realDonaldTrump, first American coal has reached Ukraine,” he wrote.

Poroshenko’s press service said the deal “is an exact example of when the friendly and warm atmosphere of one conversation helps strengthen the foundations of a strategic partnership in the interests of both sides for the future.”

The Washington meeting also discussed U.S.-Ukrainian military and technical cooperation. Soon after, the Trump administration said it was considering supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine to counter the Russian-backed separatists.

In late December the U.S. State Department announced that the provision of “enhanced defensive capabilities” had been approved.

Kozemko said the Xcoal deal was likely to be only the beginning of Centrenergo’s trade relations with the United States as it is currently holding talks on supplies of bituminous coal, a poorer quality variety.

“It’s good that we studied the U.S. market because we had never looked at it before. We see big prospects for bituminous coal,” he said, adding that other Ukrainian firms were thinking similarly. “We showed how to bring coal from America and they are following our lead.”

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How US Coal Deal Warms Ukraine’s Ties With Trump

For the first time in Ukraine’s history, U.S. anthracite is helping to keep the lights on and the heating going this winter following a deal that has also helped to warm Kyiv’s relations with President Donald Trump.

The Ukrainian state-owned company that imported the coal told Reuters that the deal made commercial sense. But it was also politically expedient, according to a person involved in the talks on the agreement and power industry insiders.

On Trump’s side it provided much-needed orders for a coal-producing region of the United States which was a vital constituency in his 2016 presidential election victory.

On the Ukrainian side the deal helped to win favor with the White House, whose support Kyiv needs in its conflict with Russia, as well as opening up a new source of coal at a time when its traditional supplies are disrupted.

Trump’s campaign call to improve relations with the Kremlin alarmed the pro-Western leadership in Ukraine, which lost Crimea to Russia in 2014 and is still fighting pro-Moscow separatists.

However, things looked up when President Petro Poroshenko visited the White House on June 20 last year.

“The meeting with Trump was a key point, a milestone,” a Ukrainian government source told Reuters, requesting anonymity.

The Americans had set particular store by supplying coal to Ukraine. 

“I felt that for them it is important,” said the source, who was present at the talks that also included a session with Vice President Mike Pence.

Despite Trump’s incentives, U.S. utilities are shutting coal-fired plants and shifting to gas, wind and solar power.

Ailing U.S. mining companies are therefore boosting exports to Asia and seeking new buyers among eastern European countries trying to diversify from Russian supplies.

Trump, who championed U.S. coal producers on the campaign trail, pressed the message after meeting Poroshenko. 

“Ukraine already tells us they need millions and millions of metric tons right now,” he said in a speech nine days later. “We want to sell it to them, and to everyone else all over the globe who need it.”

The deal with Kyiv was sealed the following month, after which U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said: “As promised during the campaign, President Trump is unshackling American energy with each day on the job.”

The deal helped to “bolster a key strategic partner against regional pressures that seek to undermine U.S. interests,” Ross added, referring to past Russian attempts to restrict natural gas flows to its western neighbors.

A matter of necessity

Ukraine was once a major producer of anthracite, a coal used in power generation, but it has faced a shortage in recent winters as it lost control of almost all its mines in eastern areas to the separatists.

Along with South Africa, Ukrainian-owned mines in Russia have been the main source of anthracite imports but this is fraught with uncertainty. In the past Moscow has cut off gas supplies to the country over disputes with Kyiv, while the Ukrainian government considered forbidding anthracite imports from Russia in 2017 although no ban has yet been imposed.

Overall anthracite imports shot up to 3.05 million tons in the first 11 months of 2017 from just 0.05 million in all of 2013 — the year before the rebellion erupted.

Neighboring Poland, which Trump visited in July, is also turning increasingly to U.S. coal. Its imports from the United States jumped five-fold last year to 839,000 tons, data from the state-run ARP agency showed.

In July Ukrainian state-owned energy company Centrenergo announced the deal with U.S. company Xcoal for the supply of up to 700,000 tons of anthracite.

Centrenergo initially said it would pay $113 per ton for the first shipment, a price industry experts and traders told Reuters was expensive compared with alternatives.

However, chief executive Oleg Kozemko said the cost varied according to the quality of the coal delivered, so Centrenergo had paid around $100 per ton on average for the 410,000 tons supplied by the end of 2017.

Kozemko said in an interview that the U.S. deal was Centrenergo’s only viable option after three tenders it launched earlier last year had failed.

“The idea to sign a contract with Xcoal was a matter of necessity,” he said. “We had agreements but they didn’t work out, because the pricing that they discussed with us and that we signed an agreement on didn’t work out.”

Data on the state tenders registry and documents seen by Reuters show that two of the tenders failed due to a lack of bids, while the results of the third were cancelled.

If that contract had worked out, Centrenergo would have paid around $96 per ton, according to Reuters calculations based on the exchange rate at the time of the tender in April.

Energy expert Andriy Gerus told Reuters the Xcoal deal “probably helps Ukraine to build some good political connections with the USA and that is quite important right now.”

 

Mutual desire 

The anthracite for Centrenergo is mined in Pennsylvania, which backed Trump in 2016. This marked the first time a Republican presidential candidate had won the state since 1988, and followed Trump’s pledge to reverse the coal industry’s history of plant closures and lay-offs in recent years.

Centrenergo says it and Xcoal agreed the contract independently of their governments and without any political pressure. However, Kozemko said: “If talks between the heads of our countries helped in this, then we can only say thank you… It was a mutual desire.”

For the Ukrainian authorities, the diplomatic benefit is clear. When the first shipment of U.S. anthracite arrived in September, Poroshenko tweeted a photo of himself shaking hands with Trump in Washington. 

“As agreed with @realDonaldTrump, first American coal has reached Ukraine,” he wrote.

Poroshenko’s press service said the deal “is an exact example of when the friendly and warm atmosphere of one conversation helps strengthen the foundations of a strategic partnership in the interests of both sides for the future.”

The Washington meeting also discussed U.S.-Ukrainian military and technical cooperation. Soon after, the Trump administration said it was considering supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine to counter the Russian-backed separatists.

In late December the U.S. State Department announced that the provision of “enhanced defensive capabilities” had been approved.

Kozemko said the Xcoal deal was likely to be only the beginning of Centrenergo’s trade relations with the United States as it is currently holding talks on supplies of bituminous coal, a poorer quality variety.

“It’s good that we studied the U.S. market because we had never looked at it before. We see big prospects for bituminous coal,” he said, adding that other Ukrainian firms were thinking similarly. “We showed how to bring coal from America and they are following our lead.”

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Brazil Gov’t Acknowledges Pension Bill Going Nowhere

Brazil’s political affairs minister Carlos Marun said on Monday that passage of a bill to overhaul the country’s costly social security system has effectively ground to a halt in Congress and would become a campaign issue in this year’s election.

Marun spoke to reporters after the head of the Senate, Eunicio Oliveira, said the federal government’s military intervention in Rio de Janeiro would, by the rules of the country’s constitution, block any vote on pension reform or any other measure requiring a constitutional amendment.

But Marun acknowledged what President Michel Temer’s critics believe is the real reason for holding up a pension vote: the unpopular bill never gained enough support and the government faced certain defeat.

“We don’t have the votes. I couldn’t guarantee we would have the votes by the end of February,” he said. That was the government’s deadline for passing the bill before lawmakers turned their attention to securing their seats in the October general election.

Pension reform is the cornerstone policy in Temer’s efforts to bring a bulging budget deficit under control. Generous pension benefits and early retirement have turned social security into the main driver of a deficit that cost Brazil its investment grade.

Marun, the cabinet minister charged with mobilizing coalition support in Congress, said pension reform would become a key issue in the election campaign if Congress did not take it up again.

The legislation to streamline social security, which required amending the constitution, was lined up for a first vote in the lower house of Congress this week.

But on Friday the government ordered the army to take over command of police forces in Rio de Janeiro state in a bid to curb violence driven by drug gangs, an intervention that blocks any constitutional changes during its duration.

Temer decreed the Rio intervention through Dec. 31, his last day in office.

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Brazil Gov’t Acknowledges Pension Bill Going Nowhere

Brazil’s political affairs minister Carlos Marun said on Monday that passage of a bill to overhaul the country’s costly social security system has effectively ground to a halt in Congress and would become a campaign issue in this year’s election.

Marun spoke to reporters after the head of the Senate, Eunicio Oliveira, said the federal government’s military intervention in Rio de Janeiro would, by the rules of the country’s constitution, block any vote on pension reform or any other measure requiring a constitutional amendment.

But Marun acknowledged what President Michel Temer’s critics believe is the real reason for holding up a pension vote: the unpopular bill never gained enough support and the government faced certain defeat.

“We don’t have the votes. I couldn’t guarantee we would have the votes by the end of February,” he said. That was the government’s deadline for passing the bill before lawmakers turned their attention to securing their seats in the October general election.

Pension reform is the cornerstone policy in Temer’s efforts to bring a bulging budget deficit under control. Generous pension benefits and early retirement have turned social security into the main driver of a deficit that cost Brazil its investment grade.

Marun, the cabinet minister charged with mobilizing coalition support in Congress, said pension reform would become a key issue in the election campaign if Congress did not take it up again.

The legislation to streamline social security, which required amending the constitution, was lined up for a first vote in the lower house of Congress this week.

But on Friday the government ordered the army to take over command of police forces in Rio de Janeiro state in a bid to curb violence driven by drug gangs, an intervention that blocks any constitutional changes during its duration.

Temer decreed the Rio intervention through Dec. 31, his last day in office.

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Latvia’s Banking Sector Rocked by US Probe, Central Bank Chief’s Detention

Latvia’s ABLV Bank sought emergency support Monday after U.S. officials accused it of helping breach North Korean sanctions while the country’s central bank chief faced bribery allegations, turning up the spotlight on its financial system.

The Baltic country, which is a member of the euro zone and shares a border with Russia, has come under increasing scrutiny recently as a conduit for illicit financial activities.

Last year, two Latvian banks were fined more than 2.8 million euros ($3.26 million) for allowing clients to violate sanctions imposed by the European Union and United Nations on North Korea. Three others received smaller fines.

ABLV said it had sought temporary liquidity support from the central bank after depositors withdrew 600 million euros, about 22 percent of total deposits, following a warning by the United States that it was seeking to impose sanctions on the bank.

Latvia’s third-biggest lender denied wrongdoing.

“We don’t participate in any illegal activities,” ABLV Bank Deputy CEO Vadims Reinfelds told a news conference. “There are no violations of sanctions.”

The bank said it would not look for a bailout from the government and that it had adequate liquidity and capital.

The European Central Bank had earlier stopped all payments by ABLV, citing the sharp deterioration in its financial position in recent days and saying a moratorium was needed to allow the bank and Latvian authorities to address the situation.

A source close to the matter said the moratorium would be short, giving ABLV just a few days to assess its situation.

Only solvent institutions may receive emergency liquidity support and should the ECB determine that ABLV cannot meet its financial, liquidity and capital obligations, it could start proceedings that may lead to the bank being wound down.

Latvia’s own central bank said it had agreed to provide 97.5 million euros worth of funding to ABLV but that the bank has yet to receive the money.

The U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) said on Feb. 13 that ABLV “had institutionalized money laundering as a pillar of the bank’s business practices.”

It linked some of the alleged activities to North Korea’s ballistic missiles program, saying bank executives and management had bribed Latvian officials to cover up their activities.

​Central bank governor

Separately, Latvia’s anti-corruption authority released central bank Governor Ilmars Rimsevics, an ECB policymaker, who was arrested Saturday on suspicion of having solicited a 100,000 euro bribe. Rimsevics denied the allegations.

The Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau said its investigation was not connected to the probe into ABLV.

“[Rimsevics’ arrest] … is about demanding a bribe of no less than 100,000 euros,” the bureau’s head, Jekabs Straume, told reporters at a news conference Monday.

Neither the police nor the anti-corruption authority gave details of the alleged request for a bribe.

A lawyer for Rimsevics, who was arrested after police searched his office and home, said he would hold a news conference at 11:00 a.m. (1000 GMT) Tuesday.

“I disagree with it categorically,” Rimsevics told Latvian news portal Delfi following his release, referring to the bribery allegations.

Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis had earlier called on the central bank chief to quit, saying: “I can’t imagine that a governor of the Bank of Latvia detained over such a serious accusation could work.”

Latvia joined the European Union in 2003 and adopted the euro currency at the start of 2014, a move that gave its central bank governor a seat on the ECB’s interest-rate-setting Governing Council.

The European Commission said Monday that Rimsevics’ detention was a matter for Latvian authorities.

Boom time

The economy of Latvia, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, has boomed in recent years. Its commercial banking sector is dominated by Nordic banks alongside a number of privately-owned local lenders.

In its document detailing the allegations against ABLV, the FinCEN said the reliance of some parts of the Latvian banking system on non-resident deposits for capital exposed it to increased illicit finance risk. It said such deposits amounted to roughly $13 billion.

“Non-resident banking in Latvia allows offshore companies, including shell companies, to hold accounts and transact through Latvian banks,” FinCEN said, adding that criminal groups and corrupt officials may use such schemes to hide true beneficiaries or create fraudulent business transactions.

“[Former Soviet Union] actors often transfer their capital via Latvia, frequently through complex and interconnected legal structures, to various banking locales in order to reduce scrutiny of transactions and lower the transactions’ risk rating.”

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In India, Trump Project Buyers Offered Dinner with Trump Jr.

Potential customers of high end property in India are being enticed by an unusual offer: the chance to spend an evening with the son of the American president if they decide to invest in residential projects licensed by the family’s company.

 

Donald Trump Junior’s week-long visit to India starting Monday could not escape attention: full, front page newspaper advertisements in the country’s most prominent newspapers have posed the question: “Trump is here. Are you invited?” and “Trump has arrived. Have you?”

 

Trump Jr. has been in charge of the Trump Organization along with his brother Eric since their father became president.

 

The advertisements, which featured large photos of Trump Jr, said that those signing up before 22nd February to buy apartments could join him for “a conversation and dinner.”

 

His first stop will be Gurugram, a business hub on the outskirts of New Delhi, where local firms under a license from the Trump Organization are developing two 47-story towers bearing the Trump brand name. The more than 250 super-luxury units in the residential blocks are selling for approximately $1 million to $1.5 million each.

 

India is the Trump Organization’s biggest overseas market, earning the family up to $3 million in royalties in 2016.

 

The hope of the business partners is that the high profile visit of the American president’s son could give sales a boost at a time when India’s real estate market is witnessing a downturn — property prices have dipped nearly 30 percent following a crackdown on untaxed money by the government. In Gurugram, home to several luxury projects, many prominent builders are stuck with hundreds of unsold flats.

Referring to the visit, Samir Juneja at PropEquity, a real estate data analytics company says “There is this big marketing push which is working pretty well.” According to him, the association of the projects with the American president’s family does help. “The brand has been created and now it happens to get a further fillip that it happens to be the president’s.”

But there is criticism of the sales trip since the advertisements began appearing on the weekend. Patrick French, a British historian who is currently Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University in India tweeted, “For the last however many days every newspaper in India has been wrapped in this abominable invitation to dinner with Trump Jr.”

A retired professional in Gurugram, Umesh Sood, was not sure if the sales pitch of a dinner and conversation with Trump Jr. would actually prompt people to put their money down.

 “You are not meeting the president, you are meeting the son with the same name, without the powers, without the pomp.”

Questions have also been raised over issues of conflict of interest. The New York Times quoted Daniel S. Markey, who worked on South Asia policy for the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, as saying that “The idea that the president’s son would be going and shilling the president’s brand at same time Donald Trump is president and is managing strategic and foreign relations with India – that is just bizarre.”

Two of the organizations four Indian projects, in Mumbai and Pune, were launched before Donald Trump was elected president. The Kolkata and Gurugram projects were launched later, but the deals had been signed before his election. The Trump Organization announced it would not launch any project outside the US after he became president.

Trump Jr. is the second child of Donald Trump to visit India. Ivanka Trump visited in November, in her capacity as a member of Trump administration, to address a global entrepreneurship summit.

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In India, Trump Project Buyers Offered Dinner with Trump Jr.

Potential customers of high end property in India are being enticed by an unusual offer: the chance to spend an evening with the son of the American president if they decide to invest in residential projects licensed by the family’s company.

 

Donald Trump Junior’s week-long visit to India starting Monday could not escape attention: full, front page newspaper advertisements in the country’s most prominent newspapers have posed the question: “Trump is here. Are you invited?” and “Trump has arrived. Have you?”

 

Trump Jr. has been in charge of the Trump Organization along with his brother Eric since their father became president.

 

The advertisements, which featured large photos of Trump Jr, said that those signing up before 22nd February to buy apartments could join him for “a conversation and dinner.”

 

His first stop will be Gurugram, a business hub on the outskirts of New Delhi, where local firms under a license from the Trump Organization are developing two 47-story towers bearing the Trump brand name. The more than 250 super-luxury units in the residential blocks are selling for approximately $1 million to $1.5 million each.

 

India is the Trump Organization’s biggest overseas market, earning the family up to $3 million in royalties in 2016.

 

The hope of the business partners is that the high profile visit of the American president’s son could give sales a boost at a time when India’s real estate market is witnessing a downturn — property prices have dipped nearly 30 percent following a crackdown on untaxed money by the government. In Gurugram, home to several luxury projects, many prominent builders are stuck with hundreds of unsold flats.

Referring to the visit, Samir Juneja at PropEquity, a real estate data analytics company says “There is this big marketing push which is working pretty well.” According to him, the association of the projects with the American president’s family does help. “The brand has been created and now it happens to get a further fillip that it happens to be the president’s.”

But there is criticism of the sales trip since the advertisements began appearing on the weekend. Patrick French, a British historian who is currently Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University in India tweeted, “For the last however many days every newspaper in India has been wrapped in this abominable invitation to dinner with Trump Jr.”

A retired professional in Gurugram, Umesh Sood, was not sure if the sales pitch of a dinner and conversation with Trump Jr. would actually prompt people to put their money down.

 “You are not meeting the president, you are meeting the son with the same name, without the powers, without the pomp.”

Questions have also been raised over issues of conflict of interest. The New York Times quoted Daniel S. Markey, who worked on South Asia policy for the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, as saying that “The idea that the president’s son would be going and shilling the president’s brand at same time Donald Trump is president and is managing strategic and foreign relations with India – that is just bizarre.”

Two of the organizations four Indian projects, in Mumbai and Pune, were launched before Donald Trump was elected president. The Kolkata and Gurugram projects were launched later, but the deals had been signed before his election. The Trump Organization announced it would not launch any project outside the US after he became president.

Trump Jr. is the second child of Donald Trump to visit India. Ivanka Trump visited in November, in her capacity as a member of Trump administration, to address a global entrepreneurship summit.

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Anti-Corruption Police Arrest Latvian Central Bank Chief

Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis assured the country and Europe “there is no sign of danger,” after anti-corruption police arrested the head of the Latvian central bank Saturday.

“For now, neither I, nor any other official, has any reason to interfere with the work of the Corruption Prevention Bureau,” Kucinskis said.

Neither Kucinskis nor the police gave any reason why central bank governor Ilmars Rimsevics was arrested. But a police spokeswoman said there will be an announcement “as soon as possible.”

The Latvian government plans an emergency meeting Monday.

Along with heading the Baltic nation’s central bank, Rimsevics is also one of 19 governors on the European Central Bank.

The U.S. Treasury Department has proposed sanctions against a major Latvian bank for alleged money laundering linked to North Korea’s weapons program.

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