How Alvaro Sobrinho, founder of Planet Earth Institute, defrauded bank where he’s CEO

Alvaro Sobrinho, the Angolan banker and founder of the Planet Earth Institute, has been exposed for having allegedly made suspicious bank transactions with and to his personal and company-related accounts while serving as the CEO of Banco Espírito Santo Angola (BESA), a subsidiary of Portugal’s bank BES. 

An article published this weekend on The Black Sea – , an online multimedia magazine specializing in narrative, in-depth and data journalism, and photo-reportage – states that Sobrinho, also the majority shareholder in Sporting Lisbon football club of Portugal, “withdrew more than $600 million from the bank where he was CEO, Banco Espírito Santo Angola, a subsidiary of Portuguese bank BES.”

(TOP: Alvaro Sobrinho, the former CEO of BESA and founder of Planet Earth Institute, an NGO which seeks to spur scientific and technological development in Africa. He’s accused of misappropriating about $1 billion from the bank where he worked as CEO for over a decade from 2001 to 2012). 

“E-mails, bank statements and company records, obtained by Der Spiegel and shared with the EIC network, show how Sobrinho and his brother-in-law funneled $277 million of this cash into a single bank account in Angola,” states the article. 

According to the article, the former CEO was in December 2014 grilled before the Portuguese parliament regarding “an almost US $6 billion black hole” in BES’ finances.

“The Government interest in the bank followed the crash of BES in Portugal, alongside the collapse of the entire network of the Espírito Santo Group (GES) of banks, companies and interests, which were active in more than 20 countries… With losses of $5.7 billion in Angola alone, the group was saved after an intervention from the Central Bank of Portugal in August 2014. But this was a humiliating end to a financial empire with more than a century of history,” notes the article published under the headline, The Angolan Job, adding that: “The dodgy balance sheet of its Angolan subsidiary, run by Sobrinho from the capital, Luanda, played a vital role in the group’s downfall.”

But he denied all the accusations brought against him.

“Guided by his legal team, Sobrinho could avoid buckling under pressure by declaring that it never happened. He would be telling the truth. The money was never withdrawn at any counter at BESA. No one ever left the bank with bags containing over 500 million dollars… However his disbelief was phoney,” explained the piece, written by Micael Pereira and Craig Shaw.

According to their findings, the massive cash deposits and withdrawals were fabricated by Sobrinho and his conspirators at BESA to cover their tracks and make it almost impossible to recreate the money trail that led back to Sobrinho. In the end, three of these firms received a total of $433 million into their BESA accounts.

The payments are in addition to the $182 million transfers from BESA to accounts in Sobrinho’s own name and two other offshore companies – Grunberg Investments and Pineview Overseas – as revealed by Expresso newspaper in Portugal in June 2014, and now part of a criminal inquiry.

“Adding these up means that Sobrinho appears to be the beneficiary of at least US $615 million of fraudulent loans from BESA, a bank which he built up from the ground as its first CEO, before it collapsed, and needed to be bailed out by the Angolan Government,” states The Black Sea.

But even as these serious investigations were being conducted against him in Portugal, his associates and companies, Sobrinho seems to have been less affected by the ongoing allegations. At least going by his public activities and engagements.

After leaving BESA in 2012, he set up his own bank – Banco Valor – which he picked former associates at BESA to manage with him as CEO.

Following the scandal and eventual collapse of BESA as well as pressure from Angola’s central bank, Sobrinho was forced to resign as Banco Valor’s CEO in September 2014. He however remains the major shareholder through both his own 35.46 per cent stake and the 31.14 per cent shares held in the name of his close relatives.

To Banco Valor’s board, Sobrinho appointed his brother-in-law, Manuel Afonso-Dias, and his former credit director at BESA, Lígia Madaleno, who is married to his brother Emanuel Madaleno. The bank’s CEO is the former head of risk assessment at BESA, João Moita.

“Now Sobrinho lives between Lisbon, Luanda, London, Geneva and Mauritius, with business interests in Kenya, Ethiopia and Indonesia, in addition to the UK, where he is the founder of NGO The Planet Earth Institute. In Switzerland, he created Signet, a wealth management company that manages his real estate investments. In South Africa, he is setting up a joint venture to open an investment bank,” states the article.

And he seems to be more actively involved in the activities of Planet Earth Institute (PEI) – which he founded in and around 2010 – an organisation set up “as a means to bring academia, governments and the private sector together to develop innovative, locally-led projects to train a new generation of African scientists.” His bio on the PEI website, where he’s the the founding chairman, describes him as “a prominent Angolan businessman and philanthropist.”

Also sitting on the PEI board together with Sobrinho are Lord Boateng, a member of the UK House of Lords and former Chief Secretary to the Treasury under Tony Blair. Boateng also served as British High Commissioner to South Africa from March 2005 to May 2009 and became PEI’s chairman in February 2017.

The other is Christopher Edwards who joined the board in 2012 before being made chairman of the NGO’s Academic Panel in 2017.

Back to Sobrinho, his personal website states “his firm belief in a techno-scientific development model for Africa has motivated” his philanthropy and charity work.

“To this end he co-founded the Planet Earth Institute (PEI), a pan-African NGO focused on the scientific advancement of the continent… Alongside his work and philanthropy, Sobrinho is an active investor in technology infrastructure in Africa. Most recently he has invested in a nationwide broadband and wireless Internet network in Cameron, the Ivory Coast and Angola named YooMee Africa. He is also working with a publishing company to distribute high-end learning materials across the African continent,” states the website.

But how does Planet Earth Institute (PEI) work and what are some of its projects and initiatives?

In November 2014, PEI held its #ScienceAfrica UnConference and ‘Africa Data Challenge!’ in London. A key highlight of the event was the ‘Africa Data Challenge!’ during which participants were invited to pitch for project seed funding of up to £7000 for their ideas related to the emerging data revolution.

(ABOVE: Álvaro Sobrinho – left – announces the ‘Africa Business Champions for Science’ in Dakar, Senegal).
In April 2015, the NGO organised the first ‘Africa Business Champions for Science’ meeting in London. The event was a joint initiative of the World Bank and PEI and targeted a new group of “influential figures from industry with a passion for science, technology and innovation.”

(ABOVE: Álvaro Sobrinho and Macky Sall, President of Senegal, during the launch of the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund).

This was followed two months later with the launch of a Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund which attracted a commitment of $5 million by African Governments and ‘Africa Business Champions for Science’. The fund awards grants for 10,000 PhD scholarships in Africa over ten years, as part of the World Bank ‘Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET)’ programme.

Then in July last year, the NGO announced plans to launch the PEI exChange, an online matching platform for all individuals working and interested in Africa.

This year, PEI in February held an Africa Breakfast Club meeting with IBM Research-Africa to explore challenges and opportunities associated with the new digital economy in Africa. The session also examined technology’s role in driving sustainable development in Africa, and IBM Research-Africa’s focus areas for 2018.

In the past, PEI has also conducted research on mobile technologies, science and key skills training in Africa.


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