Any enterprise that outlives prolonged violent conflict is certain to have a unique perspective on survival. Luanda-based Antonio J Silva Lda Transportes e Logistica, or AJS Transport and Logistics, was born on the eve of the Angolan civil war in 1975 when entrepreneur Antonio Silva and his wife bought a truck for distributing food and goods. Four decades later, the company is a major Angolan transport and logistics company, with more than 200 trucks, 350 employees, an integrated logistics arm and Luis Silva, the founder’s son, at the helm as CEO. Mr Silva tells the family company’s story, highlighting the successes as well as the challenges of operating in a country whose infrastructure has been almost entirely destroyed.
“During the civil war, our operations were very limited,” Mr Silva recalls. “We couldn’t circulate goods freely throughout the country, so we were contracted with the UN World Food Programme, which transported the goods into these conflict zones. This was primarily a humanitarian operation transporting rice, beans, corn – basic needs for the population.”
The company's success was a product of persistence, says Mr Silva, during a 27-year-long civil war where AJS trucks risked setting off road mines or being burned out in conflict zones. Nonetheless, he says, as the only local transportation company in Luanda at the time, AJS continued to cover most of the country.
Beating the competition
The company now operates in more than five of Angola’s provinces and has expanded regionally into Namibia, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. “This strategy gives us a competitive edge because our competitors have not expanded into neighbouring countries, let alone provinces,” says Mr Silva. “We are achieving growth through our greater reach overall.”
AJS meets regional transport and logistics needs in the oil and gas and mining sectors, as well as dealing in heavy machinery, container transport and consumer goods. As part of its expansion strategy, in 2007 the company established Integrated Logistics, a full-service supply chain solutions provider that makes use of more than 300 collaborators. Integrated Logistics provides services including receiving, inspecting, stock control, storage and door-to-door transportation.
“We identified the need for integrated logistics on behalf of our mining clients, and it quickly became the norm,” says Mr Silva. “This ensures that we always have complete control over the product we are transporting, from point A to point Z, which is very important for quality assurance for our clients.” This is in line with a global trend, Mr Silva explains, whereby larger transportation companies are moving from solely transport to door-to-door, full-service logistics operations.
The company is simultaneously diversifying into other sectors. It is currently investing $9m in a factory producing trailers and flatbeds for moving heavy machinery, scheduled to begin production in September this year. It is also doing its part to alleviate the country’s heavy import needs: Angola is severely short on paper and paper products, something AJS has used as an opportunity to import tissue products, with plans to import copier paper in the future.
A nation rebuilds
Energy is a further area of expansion for AJS. It is now part of a seismic study for oil exploration in the Congo Basin, joining a number of non-operator companies in funding the exploration phase, an $8m investment. AJS has also ventured into renewables, having recently been granted a 30-year concession for the construction a mini hydro-electric plant and the distribution of its energy.
While Angola finally achieved peace in 2002, its companies still battle economic woes. “The global drop in oil prices significantly affects industries in Angola,” says Mr Silva. “Because of it, many projects have been put on hold. It has lowered the volume of projects and transported goods for AJS, which means less work and less business to generate revenue.” Severely limited infrastructure across the country also limits expansion. Angola ranks 139th of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2014/15 regarding the quality of its overall infrastructure, and Angolan manufacturers face a high risk of losing goods in transit.
“The entire country was basically destroyed during the war, so the challenges we faced in transporting goods were huge,” says Mr Silva. “Roads and bridges had to be rebuilt, so we had to find solutions and work around these types of obstacles.” Additionally, a number of transportation companies sprang up after the civil war. “These are challenges we have faced in more recent years and have overcome,” says Mr Silva. “During the war, our reach was limited, but afterwards we got back up and running and it just created a realisation we could operate in any type of situation.”
Putting something back
Toughened by its past challenges, AJS aims to remain resilient, investing heavily in employee training and in the communities in which it works. It provides training in transportation as well as in welding and other skilled professions, and ensures external training in areas such as administration. The company is currently setting up its own driving and engineering training academy. In its non-Angolan markets, “98% of the staff will be local hires,” says Mr Silva, “with only a few key management positions coming from Angola, which would be employees who are already knowledgeable in AJS operations.”
As far as giving back to communities goes, AJS aims to leave its mark in areas where it has completed infrastructure projects. “We have been involved in the construction of roads and dams, and where we are involved in infrastructure, we also like to leave an end result as a gift to the locality,” says Mr Silva. These have included schools and medical centres built with the help of AJS. “We try to give back to the local area where we are doing business,” he adds.