The Deal is the Private Equity Firm’s First Foray in Africa
The private equity firm, buying a stake in an Ethiopian flower company, is making its first investment in Africa.
By Simon Clark
LONDON—For private equity giant KKR & Co., a debut investment in Africa smells of sweetheart roses.
Afriflora is an Ethiopian company that grows about 730 million of the flowers a year for export to Europe, making it a significant player in the east African country’s blossoming cut flower export industry. KKR is investing about $200 million from its $6.2 billion European fund to buy a stake in the company, according to a person familiar with the transaction.
The deal opens a new chapter for KKR, the New York-based firm best-known for its hostile $25 billion leveraged takeover of RJR Nabisco in 1988, the subject of the book “Barbarians at the Gate.”
It also comes as private-equity firms, seeking opportunities outside the crowded markets of North America and Europe, show tentative interest in Africa. KKR rival, Washington-based Carlyle Group LP, raised a $698 million African fund earlier this year and has invested in a food distributor and a logistics company, for instance.
Private equity investment in sub-Saharan Africa increased 45% to $1.6 billion in 2013 from the previous year, according to the Emerging Markets Private Equity Association. Investors are attracted by fast economic growth in some countries on the continent. The Ethiopian economy grew by an average 10.6% a year between 2004 and 2012, according to the World Bank.
“We see Africa as a long-term attractive investment destination,” said Kayode Akinola, head of KKR’s African operations. “The potential is astounding. But the work to get there is going to be considerable.”
KKR has expanded from its New York origins to add staff and offices from Beijing to Mumbai to Dubai. Mr. Akinola, whose father is Nigerian and mother is German, joined KKR in 2013 to lead the firm’s nascent African operations. He was previously with Helios Investment Partners LLP, an Africa-focused London-based private-equity firm founded in 2004.
Afriflora, whose roses are certified by Fairtrade International, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to ensure workers are treated well, employs 8,700 people in Ethiopia, 80% of whom are women. All employees and their children are provided with free health care and schooling. The company’s extensive greenhouses are irrigated with water from the nearby Lake Ziway and rainwater that is recycled and piped through a computerized drip irrigation system. The flowers—including sweetheart roses, a variety with smaller buds and shorter stems—are harvested three times a day and flown by Ethiopian Airlines to the Netherlands for sale.
East African production of roses is expanding to meet demand for lower cost flowers in large supermarkets in Europe. Ethiopia’s rose exports to the European Union more than doubled to €131 million in 2012 from €62 million in 2008, according to the International Association of Horticultural Producers. Ethiopia sent 1.27 billion roses to Europe in 2012, making it the second largest exporter of cut roses to the region behind Kenya, according to the association.
Nonprofit organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Oxfam, question the wider social impact of foreign investors buying land in developing nations. They have warned that selling land to foreign firms to produce goods for the global market can lead to domestic farmers being displaced and create shortages of much needed local produce.
However, Mr. Akinola said he hopes KKR’s first African investment will benefit Ethiopia as well as the firm’s investors. Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries and suffered a devastating famine in the 1980s that grabbed global media attention. Average income for its 92 million people is $410 a year, according to the World Bank.
“We have found a business that is attractive and is also having a positive impact,” Mr. Akinola said.
KKR plans to expand the farm by adding 200 hectares (494 acres) to the 310 hectares it currently cultivates. About 5,000 more jobs also will be created, Mr. Akinola said. The Dutch Barnhoon family, who founded the Ethiopian company in 2004, will remain as a shareholder and manager once the transaction is complete.
The Barnhoons couldn’t be reached for comment. KKR declined to disclose financial information about Afriflora’s business. Mr. Akinola and fellow KKR executive Matteo Bozzo will join Afriflora’s board.