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Local Capital in African Private Equity: An Interview with Sev Vettivetpillai, Partner, The Abraaj Group

13.10.2014Sev Vettivetpillai

You have been investing in Africa for two decades and pride yourself on being local as opposed to GPs who manage their funds out of London or New York. How much local capital financing have you mobilised for your African funds to date?

Over the years, we have raised about US$150 million from local institutional investors, representing a mix of banks, pension funds, social security funds and corporates. We raised some local capital in the 1990s with the CDC Group plc, and, in the last ten years, we have secured commitments from the likes of the National Pension Fund of Mauritius, South Suez, which has several of the local pension funds in southern Africa in their investor base, and Nigerian banks, which came into our funds under the Central Bank initiative.

How significant is the unlocking of huge amounts of local capital across Africa to your strategy, particularly with your funds going forward?

Local capital is an important part of the overall story in Africa. If Africans and African institutions are not investing in their own markets, why should somebody from outside the region think there is an opportunity here? To give credibility to the story they must invest, otherwise the story doesn't hold together.

The markets in Africa are all at different stages of development in terms of regulation and knowledge about this asset class. For example, in Nigeria, the regulatory framework has changed considerably and pension funds are increasingly able to invest in different asset classes. South Africa and Botswana may be a bit ahead of the game; however, Botswana's internal markets lack depth, so the investment strategy is oriented more externally. Then you have the South African pension funds, which have a lot of capital and are now starting to look beyond South Africa. As you can imagine, South Africa combined with the rest of Africa is a great story. So for them, understanding the challenges and the characteristics of investing outside of South Africa is their learning curve.

Limited partners in these markets face different issues, but I can see them all converging to form a very big investor group in the next five years. They are starting from virtually zero in terms of exposure to private equity, so allocations are going to go up from 0-5 per cent to maybe 10 per cent or 15 per cent of their portfolio. On the other hand, pension fund assets under management are increasing at exponential rates because their markets are growing, and more people are coming into the workforce. The importance of African pension funds as a source of capital is not to be underestimated.

What are some of the key challenges in raising local capital in Africa?

Getting the pension fund managers to understand how to build their private equity portfolios is the biggest challenge. I was at the Private Equity Master Class for Pension Funds at the African Venture Capital Association Annual Conference in Cape Town in 2013, which was organised in conjunction with the International Limited Partners Association. There were about 30 pension fund analysts in the room and the question was asked: how many have a private equity programme already? Only one put a hand up. How many have started to invest? Three more hands went up. How many are yet to start? The balance of the hands went up. So imagine the J-curve effect of investing in a private equity programme - these funds are going to have to commit capital based on their own risk/reward profile, and there's going to be a net cash outflow for a period of time until the cash flow starts to mature. That learning curve is going to be a challenge for many of them.

African pension funds often have concerns around liquidity, transparency and lack of benchmarks when it comes to private equity. How do you respond to them?

Pension funds should be looking at fund managers that have raised their third fund or beyond, because a first-time fund manager is a high-risk strategy. For pension funds, the loss of capital is a much bigger issue than the need for liquidity in the short term, relatively speaking. Each private equity fund is illiquid; you are tied in for 8-10 years. But the returns and the cash multiples should compensate for that illiquidity. If they don't, you are choosing the wrong private equity fund managers. One way to manage illiquidity is to have a co-investment program, and invest alongside the GP in larger deals. This gives you the ability to adjust the cost and liquidity because you're not tied up for ten years; you can sell your stake and get cash back.

You need to invest in GPs that provide you with the level of transparency that you need. If they don't, then you shouldn't invest with them. Look at the reports that they give on their fund, and understand how much of that information is transparent and can give you visibility of the underlying portfolio. This should be a key part of the due diligence process.

On lack of benchmarks, the first AVCA/Cambridge Associates benchmark study has been presented, and while it does not yet cover all the private equity funds in the region, what we saw was that performance is in line with Asia and Latin America. African funds are not doing any worse. The average returns, over the last ten years, of the industry are 10-12 per cent. As more information becomes available, this benchmark point will be further addressed. In addition, data from RisCura in South Africa show that the growth in the public equities market is not as strong as it is in the private markets. Pension funds have to get into this asset class or they will lose out on this significant growth.

What advice would you offer pension funds about risk and risk mitigation?

It is important to be aware of all risks - from financial to reputational. Please remember that the higher your returns, the more risk one assumes, and risk does change. Look to get back your capital and protect your downside on each investment. Look at the structures and the terms. Make sure they are applicable to you based on your risk/return profile. Don't partner with the wrong people; test the intent of your sponsors through negotiations to ensure that they are aligned with you and share the same values. And don't follow a herd mentality because LPs have done so in the past and burnt themselves badly.

Markets by their very nature tend to be volatile. We can expect one, maybe two, cycles minimum in a 7-10 year period. So building a portfolio to weather those cycles is key to ensuring that this volatility does not significantly affect your pension fund. I would encourage every fund manager to look at diversifying by country and sector, and to also look at splitting invested capital to receive returns in the form of income contractually built into the structure and capital gains. This allows you to de-risk your investment as quickly as possible, because you are not waiting for a single liquidity event to get your original invested capital back. It also helps deal with exchange risk because of currency devaluation in these markets.

How well aligned is private equity with the long-term obligations of African pension funds?

The average pension contributor in Africa today is very young, so pension fund liabilities are going to increase further down the road. The pension funds, therefore, have to invest in assets that will build long-term value, like private equity. At the same time, GPs need to understand the pension funds' level of experience and not take advantage of them. For instance, I know of managers in other markets that have gotten away with deal-by-deal carry as opposed to a full fund pay-out carry, because the pension funds were not aware of the consequences of this misalignment. Of course, this may be to the managers' advantage initially, but it will eventually be a disadvantage to everybody.

Do you think that GPs are doing enough to encourage pension funds to look at private equity, or can they do more?

GPs can and need to invest more in educating local pension funds. We at Abraaj are prepared to do so - we travel to every pension fund event to which we are invited and provide any information that we can. These investors may not commit immediately, or even invest in an Abraaj fund, but that's fine. This is bigger than that - it's about increasing the pool of capital available to the whole industry. If we as managers do not get on board now, in five years it will be a much harder job.

This interview is an extract from the newly released publication "Pension Funds and Private Equity: Unlocking Africa's Potential", a joint-publication by the Commonwealth, MFW4A, and EMPEA with the support of The Abraaj Group.

The full report is available for download in pdf format.

Sev Vettivetpillai is a Partner at The Abraaj Group and a member of its executive and investment committees, with over 20 years of direct private equity investing experience. Mr Vettivetpillai previously held the positions of Chief Executive Officer of Aureos Advisers Ltd. and Chief Investment Officer for the Aureos Group. Prior to joining Aureos, Mr. Vettivetpillai was a senior investment executive at CDC Group plc. His other appointments were at Vanik Incorporation (Sri Lanka) as a Portfolio Manager and Mott Macdonald Group (United Kingdom) as an Engineer. 

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