Álvaro Sobrinho’s Planet Earth Institute shut down, Bobab set up to take its place

We first covered the Planet Earth Institute (PEI), in 2016 when the NGO partnered with the African Academy of Sciences to create a new PhD grant programme for African students, with 10 PhD grants expected to be awarded per a year as part of the program for African students in water, energy, agro-business and basic sciences research.

In May of the same year, PEI announced the creation of the Mrs Ameenah Gurib-Fakim PhD Scholarship programme. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim was then the President of Mauritius. The PhD scholarship programme, an initiative developed in partnership between PEI, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), was to begin with 10 full PhD research grants for Mauritian researchers (or African researchers studying in Mauritius) in the areas of water, energy, agribusiness, health and blue sky research.

Up until this time, all was good for PEI and its founder, Álvaro Sobrinho, an Angolan banker. But soon afterwards, trouble would start bogging down PEI’s founder and anything (or anyone) he’d come into close contact with.

The PEI’s founders’ troubles came to the fore in 2018 when The Black Sea, a news website published in Romania, broke the story of how Álvaro Sobrinho 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. The article added that Sobrinho, who is also the majority shareholder in Sporting Lisbon football club of Portugal, “withdrew more than US $600 million from the bank where he was CEO, Banco Espírito Santo Angola, a subsidiary of Portuguese bank BES.”

“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 US $277 million of this cash into a single bank account in Angola,” stated the article, adding that the former CEO was in December 2014 grilled before the Portuguese parliament regarding “an almost US $6 billion black hole” in BES’ finances.

And in a followup article to the one published in The Black Sea, we also highlighted some of the projects of PEI in Africa since it was founded.

Then in May of 2018, the Álvaro Sobrinho (and PEI) scandal would claim its first high-profile casualty in the name of Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, who was forced to resign as the President of Mauritius due to her association with PEI and Sobrinho. It’s reported that after becoming the President of Mauritius in 2015, Gurib-Fakim was in 2016 appointed to the board of PEI and for good reason.

Sobrinho established Banco Valor 2012 after leaving BESA where he’s the CEO and soon sought to expand operations opening a subsidiary in Mauritius.

Gurib-Fakim would a year later be forced to step down as Vice-Chairman of PEI in London for intervening to help speed up Sobrinho’s banking license applications in her country. Apparently, the ex-President “sent emails to the Financial Services Commission (of Mauritius) to request that a banking license be provided by the body to Sobrino”. Banco Valor was allowed to open an affiliate in Mauritius in 2017.

In May 2016, Gurib-Fakim (while still serving as President of Mauritius) was issued with a credit card by PEI to pay for travel and logistical expenses due to her role as the NGO’s Vice Chair. Instead of using the credit card purely for PEI-related expenses, she decided to use to purchase a notebook PC in September 2016, clothes and jewelry in October, more jewels in November and luxury clothes in December, all worth around US $30,000. This is the scandal that led to her resignation as President after serving for less than 4 years.

In the face of all these scandals and bad press stretching from last year, PEI has been forced to close down after 8  years.

PEI announced on its website thus: “The Planet Earth Institute (UK) has now closed, following eight years of work to raise the profile of Africa’s science, technology and innovation agenda. We are incredibly proud to have played our small part to ensure Africa’s continued socio-economic development is underpinned by a focus on scientific excellence.”

Through our work, including hosting over 80 events in 19 countries, working with over 40 African governments and thousands of delegates, we helped forge and empower a diverse community of people and organisations dedicated to this aim… While there is much more to do, we close in the knowledge that governments across Africa are making great strides scientifically. We also know that key international organisations have now cemented the role science must play in the continent’s future, including in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s 2063 Agenda, which in their own terms is ‘underpinned by science, technology and innovation’.”

To replace PEI, the team behind the NGO have decided to set up Bobab, which is being headed by the former Chief Operating Officer at PEI, Nick Staite. Bobab is described as  a “new social enterprise dedicated to connecting science and technology professionals working in and for Africa, hosting innovative live events, promoting exciting projects and enhancing collaboration via an online community platform.”

Not much information is available from Bobab’s website which’s still under development. And apart from Nick Staite, the other members of the team are yet to be disclosed, and therefore it’s still unclear whether Alvaro Sobrinho is among them.


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