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Mauritius eyes Africa as pressure mounts on offshore business

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EBENE, Mauritius (Reuters) – Mauritius beats Singapore as the world’s top route for foreign investment to India and is a hub for thousands of firms managing half a trillion dollars in assets.

But there are only a sprinkling of office blocks in Ebene Cybercity, the heart of the tiny Indian Ocean island’s financial services industry, and the area only livens up at the weekend when a band plays in a bar of the district’s only luxury hotel.

Such limited activity is evidence that Mauritius is a “tax haven” for companies which generate no real business on the island yet use it to benefit from tax avoidance treaties with Asia and Africa, critics say.

“Mauritius is playing the tax competition game and they are playing it very well,” said Nadia Harrison, tax policy expert at ActionAid. “The result is that they are reducing the amount of tax that can be collected from the poorest countries.”

Concerned about the impact of tax havens, world powers are tightening the noose on multinationals seeking tax advantages and India wants changes to its tax treaty with Mauritius, forcing the island’s new government to re-examine its business model and focus elsewhere.

There is debate in the new government, which took office in December, about whether Mauritius was ever a tax haven but there is general agreement that the economy needs to shift focus to make sure firms invest locally and to prepare for any loss of business from India.

“My message for the offshore sector here is: they have to move from a tax haven to a typical transparent financial sector. This is what is happening now,” Finance Minister Seetanah Lutchmeenaraidoo told Reuters.

He wants the financial services industry to deepen investments in Africa to help lift sluggish growth in Mauritius and make it a high-income state by 2020.

“Singapore is to southeast Asia, what Dubai is to the Middle East, and what Mauritius will be vis-à-vis Africa,” Lutchmeenaraidoo said.

 

DRIVEN INTO A CORNER

New rules agreed by ministers from the Group of 20 industrialised nations this month to stop companies moving profits to low tax centres and “treaty shopping” for tax benefits combined with changes to India’s tax treaty are increasing the pressure on Mauritius.

“We know it is going to have a decisive impact on the future of offshore financial services worldwide,” said a former minister and now a fund manager, adding that the government was being driven “into a corner” by India.

India has pushed Mauritius into talks to change to its Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement. Signed in 1983, Mauritius took off as an investment route when India opened its economy in the 1990s.

A Global Business Company 1 (GBC1), the title for “offshore” firms, pays zero capital gains tax in Mauritius, instead of as much as 40 percent in India on some short-term investments.

Such benefits made Mauritius the source for 24 percent of the $24.7 billion of foreign direct investment (FDI) in India in fiscal 2014/15, Reserve Bank of India figures show, making it the largest source of FDI.

New Delhi says much of those funds are not really foreign investment but Indians routing money through Mauritius, a practice known as “round-tripping”.

Changes being discussed to the tax treaty would limit the appeal of Mauritius. If a company still chose to be based there, then it would be required, for example, to spend at least 1.5 million Mauritius rupees ($42,700) a year on the island before enjoying treaty benefits.

Mauritius has little choice but to negotiate with India, which could revoke the treaty altogether, like Indonesia a decade ago. This would be damaging for the financial services business which accounts for 10 percent of the island’s $13 billion gross domestic product. Of the more than 10,000 GBC1 firms, about 60 percent focus on India, officials say.

India also plans to implement a domestic law in 2017, known as the General Anti-Avoidance Rule (GAAR), that could supersede the treaty’s tax benefits in some instances.

“It hangs like a sword of Damocles,” said the former minister, adding that Mauritius needed several more years to refocus. “We need breathing space.”

 

SWITCH TO AFRICA

The changes in India are driving the island’s pivot to Africa. Almost 60 percent of GBC1 firms registered in the past three years focus on Africa, benefiting from more than a dozen double taxation avoidance treaties on the continent.

Critics say Mauritius is simply becoming a “tax haven” for Africa instead of India, a charge the government denies.

“We need to be able to reassure our friends in Africa that that is not our aim, to siphon money,” said Deputy Prime Minister and Tourism Minister Charles Gaëtan Xavier-Luc Duval. “Our aim is to contribute towards investment into Africa.”

To do so, the government has held talks with insurance firms, such as Axa and Prudential, on using Mauritius as a regional headquarters. An investment vehicle is being set up with Ghana for technology, poultry, sugar and other projects, with Mauritius firms and money involved.

But African governments should be cautious about tax pacts, ActionAid’s Harrison said.

“In the past there have been these sweeping assumptions that tax treaties will always be good for investment,” she said. “We are just encouraging countries, and particularly developing countries, not to take that for granted.”

(By Edmund Blair, Reuters)

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Tunisia sees growth at 2.5% in 2016 vs 0.5% expected in 2015

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TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s economic growth is seen at 2.5 percent for next year versus an expected growth of 0.5 percent in 2015 when two militant attacks have damaged its tourism industry, Finance Minister Slim Chaker said on Friday.

Chaker told reporters the country’s deficit was expected to narrow to 3.9 percent next year compared with an estimated 4.4 percent of gross domestic product this year.

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Safaricom bags lion’s share of Kenyan mobile revenues

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NAIROBI (Reuters) – Safaricom dominates the Kenyan mobile market, sweeping up more than 90 percent of revenues in areas such as voice calls and text messaging, according to regulator data that could further fuel a debate about competition in the industry.

Rivals like Bharti Airtel and some officials have complained that Safaricom’s dominance stifles competition. France’s Orange is seeking to sell its Kenya operation, becoming the second international operator to quit the country after India’s Essar Telecoms sold its Yu business last year.

The data obtained by Reuters comes as the East African nation is amending the telecom sector’s competition law to give the regulator more powers to penalise companies deemed to be abusing dominant positions in the industry, though what would constitute such abuse is as yet unclear.

Safaricom, in which Britain’s Vodafone has a 40-percent stake, has dismissed accusations it hampers competition, saying it does not abuse its dominance.

Safaricom’s revenues from calls amounted to a 91.63 percent market share in 2014, while its closest competitor, Airtel, had 8.33 percent, according to the data obtained from the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK).

In text or short messaging services, Safaricom had more than a 90-percent share of total market revenues from that segment, the regulator said.

In mobile data, or internet services, Safaricom’s revenues were 85.50 percent of the market share in 2014, while Airtel had 14.43 percent, Orange had 0.01 percent and Equitel, operated by Equity Bank’s subsidiary Finserve, 0.06 percent.

The figures for Orange are for 2013 as it had not submitted audited accounts for 2014 to the regulator, CAK said.

The regulator usually issues quarterly figures for number of subscribers, which give Safaricom a 67 percent share of Kenya’s 35 million users in June. It also gives traffic volumes for areas such as calls.

Asked about the regulator’s revenue breakdown, Safaricom Chief Executive Bob Collymore told Reuters: “We don’t recognise that data.” He said subscriber numbers and network traffic were a better gauge of how the firm was performing.

 

M-PESA

The data did not detail revenue from phone financial services, where Safaricom’s M-Pesa service is the most popular offering, allowing users to pay bills or send money even using the most simple mobile phone device.

Analysts say this service draws customers to use Safaricom’s wider telecoms services over its rivals.

Eric Musau, analyst at Standard Investment Bank, said the dominance of a single operator was hurting competition by driving out rivals like Essar and Orange.

He said, however, that some smaller operators were failing due to inadequate capital, frequent shareholding changes and a lack of a sound strategy for the local market. “I would say one player had a better strategy than the rest,” he added.

CAK said in August that it was amending the telecom sector’s competition law, but said it was not targeting Safaricom or any other company. It did not aim to penalise any company just for being dominant, but only if there was abuse of its position in the market.

The regulator’s head, Francis Wangusi, said at the time the new regulations would break down the telecoms sectors into segments including mobile and fixed voice, data, text messaging and mobile money transfer services.

“It is too early for us to come up to say ‘Safaricom you are dominant’, because Safaricom can be dominant in certain markets, but not dominant in others,” he said. “In all these markets, we would not apply the same rules,” he added.

Safaricom has opposed the proposed changes saying they could deter investments by targeting large firms.

Airtel Kenya CEO Adil El Youseffi said the current market situation was limiting innovation and consumer choice and driving operators out of the country. “The sector is unable to attract new or incremental investments from other international players,” he told Reuters.

Orange Kenya gave no specific comment on the figures.

(By Duncan Miriri, Reuters)

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South Africa boosts power output after maintenance

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa added 1,286 megawatts (MW) to its national grid on Thursday when two generating units were brought back online following an extensive “overhaul”, power utility Eskom said.

Eskom said electricity supplies would continue to be tight as it carried out other plant maintenance.

South Africa, the continent’s most developed economy, suffered almost daily power outages earlier this year as ageing power plants struggled to meet demand. South Africa’s national generating capacity is around 42,000 MW.

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Russia’s Rosatom says Egypt nuclear talks in final stages

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ABU DHABI (Reuters) – Russia’s state-owned nuclear firm Rosatom is in the final stages of talks for a contract to build a nuclear power plant in Egypt, a senior official of the company said on Wednesday.

Anton Moskvin, Rosatom Overseas vice president, said that the deal was expected to be signed by the end of the year.

Speaking on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, Moskvin said construction of the the first reactor of the plant at Dabaa in Egypt’s north would finish by 2022 if a contract was signed by the end of 2015. The contract would involve a loan from Russia to Egypt, he said.

“The sooner we finish the better,” Moskvin said.

“We can start site assessment work next year and then see how soon we can start real site work,” he said.

Egypt has been considering building a plant in Dabaa, situated in the Matrouh governorate, on and off since 1981.

Cairo froze its nuclear programme after the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, but announced in 2006 it planned to revive it. Plans for a tender were being prepared when President Hosni Mubarak was deposed in February 2011.

In February this year, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he had signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia for the project.

The Dabaa plant will have four reactors when complete by 2025. Rosatom is currently the only firm in negotations with Egypt over the project.

“There are some 200 people from both sides meeting every month and sometimes twice a month to discuss commercial, technical and other issues,” Moskvin said.

Rosatom is also in talks with Saudi Arabia’s nuclear government body, the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, over the kingdom’s nuclear plans.

“We are in constant contact with the King Abdullah City, the latest meetings took place in September,” Moskvin said. “Our primary interest there is in a building contract.”

Saudi Arabia and Russia signed an agreement to cooperate on nuclear energy development in June. [ID:nL5N0Z5163]

In 2012, Saudi Arabia said it aimed to build 17 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power by 2032 as well as around 41 GW of solar capacity. The oil exporter currently has no nuclear power plants.

(By Maha El Dahan, Reuters)

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South Africa’s Mediclinic agrees deal for Al Noor Hospitals

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LONDON (Reuters) – South Africa’s Mediclinic Intl agreed to buy United Arab Emirates’ Al Noor Hospitals Group, gaining the upper hand on rival NMC Health in a tussle for expansion in the fast growing Gulf region.

But NMC Health, already a major player in the UAE, vowed to fight on, saying on Wednesday it remained committed to a tie-up with Al Noor.

Shares in Al Noor jumped 19 percent to 1,185 pence, above the 1,160 pence value of Mediclinic’s agreed offer and valuing the company’s equity at 1.38 billion pounds ($2.12 billion), as investors anticipated a battle for the group.

Mediclinic’s Chief Executive Danie Meintjes, who will remain CEO after the deal, said the combined group would be the largest private healthcare provider by revenue in the “highly attractive growth market of the UAE”.

Mediclinic, which has more than 50 hospitals in South Africa and Namibia, also has a presence in the UAE. Combining the two companies will create an operator with around 20 percent of the private beds in the region, analysts said.

It will also be the biggest player in Switzerland, the third largest in South Africa, and will have a 29.9 percent stake in Britain’s Spire Healthcare Group.

The deal, structured as a reverse takeover of Al Noor by Mediclinic, will create a London-listed group with a turnover exceeding $4 billion operating 73 hospitals and 35 clinics.

NMC Health, which is also listed in London, said it had made an informal cash-and-shares offer to buy Al Noor on Oct. 9, days after Al Noor and Mediclinic said they were in talks.

Al Noor Chief Executive Ronald Lavater said there was a “compelling strategic fit” with Mediclinic, and together they could expand coverage and service delivery in the region.

He said the board had considered the NMC Health proposal and had concluded it was “inferior both on the value and on the deal certainty”.

The tie-up with Mediclinic is backed by the two major shareholders in Al Noor, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Butti Al Hamed and Kassem Alom, who combined hold 34.3 percent, the companies said.

NMC, however, was undeterred. “This confirms our belief in the competitiveness of our initial possible offer and that the combination of NMC and Al Noor has the strongest strategic and financial rationale for all stakeholders,” it said.

Al Noor was advised by Rothschild, Goldman Sachs and Jefferies, while Morgan Stanley and Rand Merchant Bank worked for Mediclinic.

(By Paul Sandle, Reuters)

 

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Burundi’s inflation eases to 4.1% year-on-year in September

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KIGALI (Reuters) – Burundi’s inflation rate dipped to 4.1 percent year-on-year in September from 4.2 percent a month earlier, helped by better production of some crops which slowed food price rises in local markets, official data showed on Tuesday.

The tiny central African coffee producer nation is facing one of its worst political crises after President Pierre Nkurunziza was re-elected in July for a disputed a third term.

Nkurunziza’s opponents said running again broke a peace pact that ended more than a decade of civil war in 2005. The country endured months of protests and violence and tens of thousands of people fled unrest that included an attempted coup in May.

As a result, Burundi’s economic output is expected to shrink by 7.2 percent this year after growing 4.7 percent in 2014, the International Monetary Fund said in its report on world economic output for October.

Burundi’s Institute of Economic Studies and Statistics (ISTEEBU) said inflation was under control between August and September due to a fall in the price of beans and rice, the most consumed food in a nation of nearly 10 million people.

Food price inflation slowed to 3.8 percent in the year to September from 4.6 percent in August, ISTEEBU said.

Economic analysts fear Burundi’s economic situation could worsen if the crisis persists and if more donors cut aid.

Some major donors such Belgium have already cut aid, in condemnation of the violence and human rights violations committed since April.

The European Union, which funds about half the annual budget of Burundi, is also considering whether to limit its aid, diplomats say, but is wary of hurting the general population.

It has imposed individual sanctions on security officials close to Nkurunziza who were implicated in the violence.

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Kenya’s KenGen says full-year pretax profit more than doubles

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NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenya’s main electricity generator KenGen said on Monday its pretax profit for the full year to June rose 109 percent to 8.69 billion shillings ($84 million), helped by higher electricity sales.

KenGen, which is 70 percent state-owned, said in a statement its performance was boosted by increased generation from geothermal and wind power.

“Profit before tax increased … propelled by capacity growth, improved performance and tax credit from capital allowances enjoyed by the company following the commissioning of 280 MW geothermal plants, well heads and Ngong Wind,” it said.

It said electricity revenue jumped to 25.6 billion shillings from 17.4 billion the year before.

Earnings per share rose to 5.24 shillings from 1.29 shillings during the year to June 2014 and it said it would pay a dividend of 0.65 shillings per share, up from 0.40 shillings previously.

Operating costs rose to 8.41 billion shillings from 7.02 billion due to operating and maintaining new plants.

KenGen said in July it planned to add another 450 megawatts (MW) to the grid from wind and geothermal in the next three years at a cost of at least $710 million. [ID:nL8N0ZN29V]

Kenya, which depends heavily on renewables such as geothermal and hydro power, aims to expand installed capacity to about 6,700 MW by 2017, from about 2,500 MW now. It also aims to halve bills from between $0.17 and $0.18 per kWh within three to four years.

 

(Reporting by George Obulutsa; Editing by David Holmes, Reuters)

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Dow Chemical seeks to triple Africa revenue in five years

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NAIROBI (Reuters) – Dow Chemical Co plans to triple its revenue from sub-Saharan Africa in the next five years and is investing in offices, local staff and manufacturing plants on the continent to meet that target, its head of the region said.

The company sees opportunities in agriculture, where it supplies crop protection chemicals, infrastructure, where it offers water treatment chemicals, as well as in mining and manufacturing.

“We expect to triple our revenue from Africa over the next five years. That is our objective and we are on track to do that,” Ross McLean, president for sub-Saharan Africa, told Reuters in an interview in Nairobi, without saying what revenue the company already achieves there.

“Dow is absolutely betting on Africa’s growth,”

Dow, whose group sales reached $12.9 billion in the second quarter, has opened hub offices in Kenya, to serve East Africa, and another in Ghana, serving West Africa. It is also opening offices in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Angola, as well as in other markets.

“Most multi-nationals, that are driving a growth strategy in Africa, are starting from a very low base, and currently they may be at 1 or 2 percent of the global revenue of the company,” he said, putting Dow’s revenue breakdown in line with that level.

Dow is also investing in a production plant in Egypt, and another in Saudi Arabia, where it has partnered with Saudi Aramco, in order to be consistent with supply of its products to African markets, McLean said.

He said challenges the company faced included weaker currencies in the region, and declines in prices of commodities and oil.

The World Bank cut its 2015 growth forecast for the region last week to 3.7 percent, the slowest since 2009.

McLean said that did not affect Dow Chemical’s ambitions.

“We are here for the long term and we are not scared by the bumps in the road. Africa is a place where you have to be pretty resilient and determined,” he said.

(By Duncan Miriri, Reuters)

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Ugandan shilling stronger, helped low dollar demand, tight liquidity

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KAMPALA (Reuters) – The Ugandan shilling was slightly firmer on Monday due to subdued dollar demand and tight liquidity in the money markets, traders said.

At 0905 GMT, commercial banks quoted the shilling at 3,668/3,678, stronger than Thursday’s close of 3,675/3,685. Markets were closed on Friday for a national holiday.

“Some players in the interbank are cutting back their (dollar) positions because there’s no demand,” said Ali Abbas, trader at Crane Bank.

“I have also seen some banks doing conversions to get shillings because there’s a bit of (shilling) scarcity.”

The local currency has lost 25 percent against the greenback so far this year and its steep depreciation has prompted the central bank to increase its key lending rate to try provide support and stem price pressures.

The rate now stands at 16 percent after being raised by a total of 500 basis points so far this year.

The central bank is due to make its next announcement on the rate on Thursday and most analysts expect a hike to help curb surging inflationary pressures.

Uganda’s inflation shot up to 7.2 percent year-on-year in September from 4.8 percent in August.

Bank of Africa said in a market note it expected some demand from energy companies, which could give the shilling some depreciation bias, though it will likely remain below 3,700.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by George Obulutsa and Tom Heneghan, Reuters)

 

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