Madagascar's Iron Lady Emma Rasolovoahangy believes in minerals

Presidential runner seeks western investors. Mark Leftly reports
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The Independent Online

In the week that one Iron Lady was laid to rest, another was in London to raise funds for her own tilt at running a nation in economic crisis. Except this lady doesn't come across as particularly steely, rather she is hunting for iron – as well as numerous other money-spinning minerals – beneath the surface of Madagascar, the huge but poverty-stricken Indian Ocean island off Africa's south-eastern coast.

Emma Rasolovoahangy, a millionaire businesswoman who is looking to bring that commercial nous to revitalise the country where she was born. The Stanford-educated geologist and founder of oil explorer PetroMad is running in delayed Madagascan presidential elections this July, standing on a platform of attracting overseas investment to a country where 70 per cent of the population live below the dollar-a-day poverty line.

Dressed in a light-grey trouser suit and looking a good decade younger than her 46 years, Rasolovoahangy sighs that Madagascar's 22 million people should all be billionaires due to those lucrative commodities. Instead, since gaining independence in 1960, the country has been devastated by battles for power, the most recent of which saw president Marc Ravalomanana flee in a bloody coup and replaced by what has proved to be a four-year "transitional" authority.

Neither Ravalomanana nor his successor, Andry Rajoelina, are standing this time, although the former's wife, Lalao, will join the wide ranging field who have declared their interest in running. According to a recent poll, there is a strong desire to have a woman run a country that had three queens in the colonial era, a boost to both the former first lady and Rasolovoahangy.

Certainly, executives at Western companies working in Madagascar, which include oil groups Total and the FTSE's Ophir Energy, will be interested in Rasolovoahangy's message. She argues: "Most multinationals have left. We need more good governance, we need experienced people who know and dominate their field, not just friends and family granted political favours.

"We have so much opportunity in Madagascar, with the oil, the minerals, agriculture, water, natural gas, vanilla, coffee, seafood. Under my plan we can get people above the poverty line in one year."

This masterplan involves aping Chile's economic revolution, which she largely credits to US engineer Bechtel for overseeing the speedy and co-ordinated development of infrastructure across the country, stimulating growth by sub-contracting work to local businesses. "The interest [from Western companies] is there for Madagascar, but when they think about the government, then they are not interested," she claims.

Rio Tinto would appreciate that argument, as the mining giant has faced dreadful local difficulties as part of a land dispute at its operations in the excruciatingly poor south-eastern tip of the island. In January, Malagasy soldiers, paratroopers, and policemen had to disperse protesters armed with slingshots and spears after they had effectively held 200 Rio Tinto workers hostage in a zircon and high-quality ilmenite mine, a project supported by the World Bank.

Though eye-catching, Rasolovoahangy's ideas are risky. There is clearly a suspicion among Madagascans that although overseas companies bring the money and skills to develop the riches, they might also take all of the rewards. It was a land deal with South Korea's Daewoo Logistics that led to Ravalomanana's downfall.

Rasolovoahangy insists that she would openly negotiate so that any incoming Western firm and the ordinary Malagasy would share the profits, as she looks to build a strong private sector in a country that relies heavily on the state for employment. Seeing through those changes will require her to be as resilient as the original Iron Lady.