Sanga de Almeida is not a woman who conforms to expectations.
The daughter of Angolan diplomats, she took a job as VP and CMO of K2L Capital, an Angolan holding company, without ever having lived in the country. She has no background in the steel, real estate or construction, K2L’s primary businesses. Indeed, she studied fashion merchandising at the Parsons School of Design, and still dresses the part, arriving for a meeting at Fortune’s office in a fur and fashion-forward heels.
Yet de Almeida was the driving force behind K2L’s latest $300-million accomplishment: opening ADA Steel, the first-ever mass producing steel mill in Angola.
The need for diversification
The mill, which officially opened on Dec. 15, is one of a few major private investment projects in Angola, a country in southern Africa that was devastated by a civil war that began in the 1970s and continued in fits and starts until 2002. To say the country needs this mill is an understatement; this year has been an incredibly painful one in terms of Angola’s economy, says southern Africa expert Anne Fruhauf, a senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence. “This comes at a very good time for a government that’s desperate for good news,” she says.
Fruhauf explains that Angola’s economy is extremely dependent on oil—it makes up more than 90% of the country’s exports and about 75% of the government’s revenues, she says. Given the slumping oil market, diversifying the economy is at the top of the agenda for the office of Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the dictator who has been president of the country since 1979.
The birth of the ADA Steel project
With oil powering most of its economy, Angola is heavily reliant on imports. That lack of home-grown resources is precisely what prompted Georges Choucair, founder and CEO of K2L, to embark on the ADA Steel project. After coming to Angola from Senegal 23 years ago, Choucair began his real estate development business in 2003, importing all necessary steel from Brazil and Western markets. Eventually, K2L expanded into distribution of the metal as well; the company currently controls 70% of the imported steel market, according to Choucair.
Yet relying on imports is dangerous, says Choucair. He learned this firsthand in 2009, when a crisis in raw materials sent steel prices through the roof. Burned by the experience, Choucair decided it was time to start making the metal himself. After visiting some of the world’s biggest mills, and receiving authorization from the Angolan government—a task that took a year and a half to complete—he began the project in 2012.
How steel found Sanga
De Almeida met Choucair in 2012, while she was was working for the Angolan embassy in Holland. Having just finished her masters’ degree at Parsons, she was completely taken aback when Choucair proposed that she come work with him in her parents’ home country. The daughter of Angolan diplomats, de Almeida spent her formative years in Paris, Ethiopia, and Morocco—but never in Angola.
“I’m good with handbags, not steel,” she recalls telling Choucair, when he suggested that the then-29-year old de Almeida join K2L to “take care of anything related to image.” She didn’t take the idea seriously until she visited the country and realized how large of an impact she could have there. “It’s such a new country that things have to be established literally from the ground up,” she says.
One example: The hard-won battle of providing the mill with the infrastructure it needs to operate—an undertaking that fell to de Almeida. New to the industry and the country, she created relationships with government ministers, partnering with them to build a high-voltage line 52 km from the ADA Steel factory. The line, which went up in October, now provides electricity to the mill, as well as to a swathe of the country that previously had limited access to power.
A woman in a man’s world
De Almeida and Choucair maintain that no money has changed hands between K2L and the government. Dos Santos’ regime is notoriously corrupt, with the president and his supporters reportedly taking kickbacks from companies wishing to operate within the country. In 2012, the International Monetary Fund reported that 32 billion in oil revenue was missing from the country’s ledger.
According to de Almeida, the scale of the project allowed K2L to do business without paying off the government. The regime was concerned that K2L would take its investment elsewhere if it encountered difficulty or corruption, she says.
De Almeida is often the only woman in the factory, which employs 600 people. “It’s very awkward,” she says. “[Some of] those men haven’t seen a woman in three months.” Being the sole woman can be difficult, and de Almeida has had to resort to playing tough on many occasions. “I have to step out of who I really am and be harsher,” she explains.
Whatever it is she’s doing seems to be working. The electricity line is in place and the mill is open for business. “She is a fish in the sea,” says Choucair. “She is swimming.”
2015 is a difficult time to be in the steel business, says Fruhauf, pointing to the fact that steel prices have been particularly low, and that other African steel projects—particularly in South Africa—have been struggling. “It fits with the broader theme of industrialization, but in terms of profitability this is challenging,” she says.
De Almeida is confident in the project’s viability, however. “Steel is not doing well in the world, but for a country like ours it makes complete sense,” she says. “Everything that stands has steel in it and we’re going to produce that steel.” ADA has the capacity to produce 500,000 tons of steel per year.
“We lack infrastructure. We’re young. We’re getting there,” she says. “And it’s my job to make sure we do.”