In the midst of Angola’s oil boom, in 2011, Vera Daves de Sousa, then the head of research of a local bank, was a regular guest on TV discussing financial markets and the economy of Africa’s second-biggest crude producer.
That’s how the 28-year-old caught the interest of Archer Mangueira, chairman of the Capital Markets Commission, who was looking for young talent to help start debt trading on Angola’s stock exchange.
“He saw me on TV and said: ‘whoa,’ she looks very confident, she knows what she’s talking about. Why not!” Daves de Sousa, who’s now 35, said in an interview. “He invited me to be a board member.”
The commission marked the start of Daves de Sousa’s career in Angola’s male-dominated political world, where army generals who played a role in the country’s 27-year civil war used to occupy prominent positions.
To prepare for her TV appearances, Daves de Sousa said she studied for hours to learn how to “communicate in very simple terms.” Today, she’s facing a more daunting task: appointed finance minister a month ago, she’ll have to revive an economy that’s forecast in 2019 to contract for a fourth consecutive year — the worst recession since war ended in 2002.
“She has a big challenge ahead of her,” said Goncalo Moura Martins, chief executive officer of Portuguese construction company Mota-Engil, which has been in Angola since 1948. “The country is suffering from a series of circumstances linked to lower oil prices and needs to face these problems with courage.”
In 2014, under former President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Angola was among the world’s fastest-growing economies, benefiting from the highest oil prices ever seen and achieving a per-capita gross domestic product of $4 164, according to the World Bank.
Since then, oil prices have fallen far below $100-plus per-barrel levels. Under a $3.7 billion loan program agreed last year, the International Monetary Fund is urging the government to impose austerity measures such as reducing public debt, scrapping fuel subsidies and weakening the kwanza, which is expected to push inflation to 24% next year, from 17.5% this year, according to the finance ministry.
Daves de Sousa, who practices yoga in her free time, said she’s determined to reduce the presence of the state and diversify the economy. This will take time: crude oil still accounts for more than 90% of export revenue.
“We are looking to change that paradigm,” she said. “We want to invite the private sector to play a more important role.”
Used to always being the youngest person in the room, Daves de Sousa’s rise to prominence was swift. First, she replaced Mangueira as head of the Capital Markets Commission in 2016. The following year, her former boss, who’d gone on to become finance minister, hired her as secretary of state for Treasury. Last month, she succeeded Mangueira again after he became governor of Namib province, this time as Angola’s first female finance minister.
“She was one of the best students I ever had,” said Alves da Rocha, a professor of economics at Angola’s Catholic University, who co-authored a book on public finance with Daves de Sousa.
She’s also a hard worker, said Jose Matoso, an adviser to the chief executive officer of the Capital Markets Commission, who used to work with Daves de Sousa during her time there.
“She has an incredible ability to learn very quickly and work for 10 to 12 hours a day without getting tired,” said Matoso. “I used to think to myself: does she ever stop to drink, eat or sleep?”
While Angola boasts Africa’s richest woman — Isabel dos Santos, the former president’s daughter — that doesn’t mean it’s more advanced than its peers when it comes to gender equality. Angola ranked 125 out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 gender gap report.
“Angolan women are assuming positions of greater responsibility but the top, more prominent positions, continue to be occupied by men,” said Eva Santos, founder of the non-governmental Woman Leadership in Angola. “There is still a long way to go.”
Wealth inequality also remains widespread. After ruling for 38 years, Dos Santos stepped aside in 2017 to be replaced by Joao Lourenco. Most Angolans welcomed the change as an opportunity to better distribute the income from the country’s vast oil and diamond riches. Many residents of the capital, Luanda, live in trash-strewn shantytowns outside the center, a jarring contrast with the high-rise luxury hotels and office buildings along the palm tree-lined bay area.
Some are getting impatient: dozens of people demanding work tried to make their way to the building in Luanda last month where Lourenco gave his state-of-the-nation address. More than half of those 24 years or younger can’t find jobs.
Another obstacle Daves de Sousa will probably face demands from other ministries to spend more on security, said Antonio Estote, an independent economist and professor at the Universidade Lusiada de Angola. About a fifth of fiscal spending next year will go to defense, security and maintaining public order, according to the 2020 budget proposal.
“A woman saying no to generals is not very common in Angola,” Estote said.
Daves de Sousa, for her part, said she’s grateful to Lourenco for appointing a young woman to a strategic position in government.
“It took a lot of courage of the president to make that decision,” she said. “I feel a responsibility to make sure that with my performance I keep the door open for more women and to play the role of an inspirational leader.”
© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.