Ghost offices on the small island provide legal but questionable means of siphoning tax dollars away from poor countries and into the pockets of the global elite.
ORT LOUIS, Mauritius—The security guard at Malawi Mangoes’ registered address at an office at the St Louis Business Centre in downtown Port Louis is not sure if we’re in the right place. The staff at the front desk are bewildered by our request to speak to someone from the company. The otherwise modest office block has flat-screen televisions on the walls and glossy magazines with titles like Savile Row and Family Business on a table in a small waiting area.
After about 20 minutes, a woman in a suit appears, bearing apologies—she had been out to lunch. At first, she seems to mistake us for investors in Malawi Mangoes. We jump in to clarify: We’re journalists looking to talk to someone from the company, which in 2014 received a $5 million loan from the private investment arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Our interlocutor appears confused, as if she knows little about the business, or why we might be attempting to learn more about it in Port Louis, Mauritius.
She confirms that Malawi Mangoes, a company whose plantations and juice-making operations are located over 1,500 miles away in Malawi, is indeed registered at this address, but she declines tell us anything else. There is no one from the company here to speak to, no one to interview, no pamphlets or brochures we can read.
Mauritius sits 1,200 miles off the eastern coast of southern Africa, in the Indian Ocean. It’s an isolated island, without an endowment of exploitable natural resources like oil or minerals. Simon Springett, the United Nations resident coordinator for the island, told us that when the country became independent from the United Kingdom in 1968, “economists basically said there’s no way Mauritius can survive as an independent nation-state.”
Sugar cane had been the country’s core crop for centuries. Sugar is still produced in Mauritius, but the island owes much of its modern prosperity to the development of another more controversial industry.
In 2018, Mauritius has an international reputation built around extremely low taxes—a flat corporate tax rate of 15 percent and an
effective rate as low as zero to 3 percent for offshore companies—as well as high levels of financial secrecy. Global businesses registered in Mauritius have assets valued at more than $630 billion , almost 25 times the country’s own GDP of $26 billion . Its offshore financial industry includes more than 21,000 registered businesses—almost 70 times the number of primary schools in the country. However, these firms don’t take up a lot of space; many of them exist only on paper, set up to benefit from the island’s cut-rate taxes and its “ask no questions” attitude.
Since the early 1990s, Mauritius has remade itself into an African tax haven, where multinational corporations and ultra-rich individuals can stash their cash and profits and minimize their tax bills, away from the prying eyes of other governments and the public.
As the private investment arm of the World Bank, the IFC is tasked with investing in businesses in developing countries to help “end extreme poverty and promote shared prosperity,” while also making money to support the bank’s other programs. Despite its mandate to help the world’s poorest people, it seems to have largely turned a blind eye to the controversial role Mauritius plays in the global tax system—and, in some cases, it has likely profited from the country’s remoteness and opaque financial services itself.
The IFC has approved loans and investments in more than 1,600 companies since 2012. According to our analysis of their project disclosures, at least 50 of these were for companies registered in Mauritius but operating elsewhere. Many of these companies, including Malawi Mangoes, are based in sub-Saharan Africa, and their registration in Mauritius may be depriving African governments of much needed-tax revenue.
Last year, the African Business Review reported that nearly 60 percent of investments made by international companies registered in Mauritius were destined for mainland Africa. Mauritius has been accused by civil society groups such as Oxfam of draining public resources from poorer countries by allowing multinational investors to shift their profits here, enabling them to pay much less than their fair share of taxes in the countries where they actually operate. And in 2013, the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa criticized the island as “a relatively financially secretive conduit” that facilitates illicit financial flows across the continent.
Malawi Mangoes is one of the companies in which the IFC has invested. It was
founded in 2009 by a pair of British entrepreneurs, Jonathan Jacobs and Craig Hardie. From the Salima district in central Malawi, it produces mango and banana puree and fresh fruit for export around Africa, to the Middle East, and to Europe.
When the IFC approved its $5 million investment in Malawi Mangoes in 2014, it was described as an agribusiness project in the soft drink sector, with the loan going to support the company as it tried to establish itself in the country. This would create much-needed rural jobs, the IFC argued , “thus injecting money to the local economy through wages and benefits paid.” Economic growth in poorer countries like Malawi is being held back, the IFC contends, by “the lack of risk capital” needed to “build the dynamic, job-creating companies that drive prosperity.”
To even be eligible for its support, projects must be located in a developing country and “have good prospects of being profitable”—but also “benefit the local economy; and Be environmentally and socially sound.” And though the IFC’s investment location is listed as Malawi, the funds actually go to “Malawi Mangoes (Mauritius) Limited.”
Company records in Mauritius and the United Kingdom, where the owners have filed paperwork, reveal that Malawi Mangoes moved its business to Mauritius after it had already started working in Malawi. This is significant because it appears to contradict claims that Mauritius is encouraging investment in Africa that wouldn’t otherwise happen.
Malawi Mangoes was incorporated in the United Kingdom in 2009, according to financial records filed in London. This U.K. entity was dissolved in 2015. By then, Malawi Mangoes had incorporated two companies in Mauritius (in 2012 and 2013), under the island’s global business system. In other words: Mauritius didn’t facilitate the company’s entrance into Malawi. It had already happened.
This suggests that Malawi Mangoes was attracted to Mauritius by something else: not the chance to move into Africa for the first time, but more likely its low taxes, high secrecy levels, and what the World Bank touts as its “ ease of doing business .”
Despite the IFC’s poverty-reducing mandate and its requirement that projects benefit the local economy, the institution, and the World Bank as a whole, has been criticized for years for investing in commercial projects with dubious impacts on poor communities, including five-star hotels, upmarket shopping malls, and even agribusiness projects that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people .
On its website, the IFC
explains how potential investments are reviewed, with proposals that are supposed to contain information such as the company’s finances and expected profits. IFC teams assess whether projects will comply with environmental and social performance standards, which cover issues such as labor conditions, land acquisition, and biodiversity—but not taxation, let alone tax justice.
The IFC’s disclosure
explains that Malawi Mangoes is majority-owned by BXR Group, a private investment group in Amsterdam, and that the second-largest shareholder is “well-known fund manager and philanthropist” Stewart Newton. The project’s environmental and social
review says Malawi Mangoes (Mauritius) Limited is “a holding company that runs an operation in Malawi.” No explanation is provided in the disclosure, however, as to why a company structured like this was deemed a suitable investment for the IFC, or why the entity receiving IFC money would be based on the Indian Ocean island.
Because this company is registered in Mauritius, where such information is not disclosed, we could not determine its annual revenues, profits, or how much tax it pays. However, it was reported locally in Malawi earlier this year that the company had secured 1,700 hectares of farmland near its existing plantations to expand its operations, and that its mango exports so far have already been worth more than $1.4 million.
The IFC’s disclosures also hint at possible problems on the ground in Malawi. In 2014, it said Malawi Mangoes had more than 600 employees, with the lowest-paid workers making just $35 a month. Though this is described as 20 percent higher than Malawi’s minimum wage, the company has also subsidized maize purchases for its workers during periods of the year when they could not afford it. And while the company does buy fruit from small-scale farmers through so-called outgrower schemes, it does not appear that local farmers or the Malawian economy are the main beneficiaries of the company’s activities.
Last year, a report in Malawi’s Maravi Post claimed that a senior chief in the Salima district “made shabby land deals” with Malawi Mangoes for which she allegedly pocketed proceeds and left “affected families” largely uncompensated.
Vigils were reportedly organized for 18 days at Salima District Commission offices to demand her removal as chief. “This land was sold dubiously to foreigners, without consultations but only telling us that it was government which allocated it,” one of the demonstrators, Muhamad Chingomanje, was quoted as saying. “We are not against developmental projects on our land, but … we want to benefit from its proceeds.”
The U.N. Economic Commission for Africa says illicit financial flows from Africa could be worth as much as $50 billion per year—double the amount of official international aid budgeted for the continent—with impacts including drained foreign exchange reserves and worsening poverty. Tax havens enable this, it explains, by allowing for the creation of “disguised corporations, shell companies, anonymous trust accounts, and fake charitable foundations.”
The secrecy afforded in places like Mauritius may facilitate illegal practices—though the real story is how tax havens enable aggressive tax practices and legal tax avoidance on a massive scale, with companies taking advantage of gaps and mismatches in tax rules to shift their profits and declare them not where their real business is, but where they’ll pay less. This is part of a larger story about how countries have been sucked into competing with one another to offer the best deal to corporations, regardless of the impacts on their economy and their citizens. Then there is the impact on countries like Malawi, which is even worse for the public purse.
According to the IMF, developing countries’ revenue losses from what’s called “base erosion and profit-shifting” may exceed $200 billion . This issue has been acknowledged at the very top of the World Bank as well. In 2015, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said : “Some companies use elaborate strategies to not pay taxes in countries in which they work, a form of corruption that hurts the poor. More equitable taxation could easily eclipse official development assistance received by countries.”
Mauritius is an epicenter of this sort of profit-shifting. In addition to its flat tax rate of 15 percent, there is no capital gains tax and no tax on dividends or interest paid to nonresidents. Companies don’t even need to have a direct physical presence with staff on the island: This can also be outsourced to agents of financial services firms, whose employees may act as representatives for many companies at a time—just like those we met in Port Louis, at Malawi Mangoes’ registered address, who appeared surprised to be asked questions about the firm.
Once in Mauritius, it also helps for a business to have more than one subsidiary to take advantage of different incentives offered to different types of companies. Malawi Mangoes’ company records list two businesses in the country: Malawi Mangoes (Mauritius) Limited , incorporated in April 2012, and Malawi Mangoes Management (Mauritius) Limited , set up in January 2013. Both are incorporated as offshore companies within the island’s global business system and registered to the same address: “St Louis Business Centre, CNR Desroches & St Louis Streets, Port Louis.”
This is where we went in Mauritius, to ask about the company’s business and why it was running an operation in Malawi from an island so far away. But it’s just a care-of address, at the offices of a financial services firm called Rogers Capital, which helps its customers set up and manage offshore entities, lends its address for their registration forms, and keeps their details under wraps.
That pattern holds for other IFC investments in sub-Saharan Africa, made via Mauritius instead of directly in the countries of operation. In the capital of Port Louis, we had more Kafkaesque experiences. In one small office, on a narrow road in the city’s Chinatown, we found the registered office of
CSquared, a broadband internet infrastructure business operating in several countries including Ghana and Uganda that counts Google among its investors. There, the man we spoke to would not even confirm the address of the building we were sitting in.
The IFC says clearly on its website that “tax evasion is unacceptable in any part of a transaction in which the World Bank Group is involved.” It insists that it “exercises due diligence to confirm that the structures in which it invests are chosen for legitimate reasons” and that it’s “committed to advancing the international tax transparency agenda.”
This sounds serious, but the language used also carefully limits the problem to illegal activity. Tax evasion is the illegal nonpayment or underpayment of tax. But for multinational companies, there are many strategies to limit tax bills that may be currently legal but still highly questionable—particularly for an institution, backed by the world’s governments, with an explicit mandate to help end poverty and boost “shared prosperity.”
Anti-poverty and tax justice nongovernmental organizations have argued for years that the IFC shouldn’t be investing in companies using tax havens at all, as such structures enable information on money made and taxes paid to be hidden from governments as well as the public. Legitimate reasons for companies to incorporate in tax havens may be a matter of interpretation, but it cannot be publicly scrutinized or debated if businesses’ information is never disclosed.
In 2016, Oxfam accused the World Bank of “turning a blind eye” to the use of tax havens by the companies that the IFC invests in. It also scrutinized IFC disclosure information and found that 25 percent of all of the organization’s investment projects in sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 were directly allocated to companies incorporated in tax havens, with almost 9 percent of the projects in Mauritius. What’s more, it found that a large majority of firms receiving IFC financing use tax havens, apparently unconnected to their core business, at some point in their corporate structure.
Oxfam demanded that the World Bank “ensure that its clients can prove they are paying their fair share of tax” and confirm that these businesses aren’t taking “advantage of the weakness of the system to reduce their tax bill to the minimum, especially through the artificial shift of profits” to countries like Mauritius. The organization suggested specifically that “responsible corporate tax considerations—beyond legal compliance” should be incorporated into the IFC’s environmental and social performance standards immediately and used to review and monitor their array of investments.
At the time, an IFC spokesperson responded by inaccurately characterizing the NGO’s criticisms as focused on illegal tax evasion, again stressing that “there are legitimate uses for offshore structures.”
This week, an IFC spokesman told Foreign Policy that the organization would only invest in a company if it was “satisfied with the integrity of the client and that the structure of the transaction is legitimate and not designed to be used for tax evasion.” The spokesman reiterated the argument that “Offshore Financial Centers can play a key role in cross-border investment,” especially when a host country lacks certain laws, contract enforcement mechanisms, or shareholder protections. “Appropriate use of intermediate jurisdictions,” he argued, “enables increased mobilization of private capital for investment that helps the poor.”
According to the spokesman, the IFC’s investment in Malawi Mangoes was “to support rural incomes through development of commercial production and processing of mangoes and bananas in a region where poverty is high” and that it was subject to the “policy on use of intermediate jurisdictions” and found to be acceptable. The IFC also pointed out that its performance standards “were developed before some of the public focus on tax and illicit financial flows” and that it was now updating its policies based on new and evolving international standards. It is unclear if Malawi Mangoes would qualify under the new standards.
According to the IFC, Malawi Mangoes has failed to ramp up its production and never generated any profits. This, of course, does not alter the nature of the tax arrangements the company set up for that eventuality.
Malawi Mangoes did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Last October, the prime minister of Mauritius, Pravind Jugnauth, revived the old narrative of the island’s dim economic prospects in an interview with the Financial Times. “We are a small island that is limited in many ways. We don’t have any natural resources,” he told the newspaper.
“We need to have an edge over others to be attractive,” Jugnauth added. “I think the advantage in taxation is important.”
At the World Bank office in Port Louis, the argument is much the same. Alex Sienaert, the country representative for Mauritius, said the offshore industry has benefited the island, providing a source of foreign exchange and encouraging kids to stay in school and work hard to get offshore office jobs. He said there is a sense among young people in the country that if “I can qualify as an accountant or a lawyer, there’s a good job for me, an office job, on the island. … That’s been going on for well over a generation now.”
But he acknowledged that “you do hear some concerns.” The offshore industry in Mauritius employs a surprisingly small fraction of the population—just 5,000 workers directly in a country of over 1 million people. And not all boats have been lifted equally by the island’s transformation into a corporate utopia. In March, the World Bank
warned in a new 147-page report that inequality among Mauritians has “widened substantially” over the last 15 years, “threatening the standards of living of the poor.”
According to the report, the gap between the incomes of the poorest and the richest 10 percent of households increased by 37 percent from 2001 to 2015. One of the report’s authors
attributed this to structural changes, including a “progressive shift from traditional and low-skills sectors to services, notably professional, real estate, and financial services,” which not all workers benefited from. Women, in particular, did not share in the gains, with only 57 percent of them in the labor force by 2015, and women in the private sector have been paid on average about 30 percent less than men.
Sienaert at the World Bank told us, “there’s no question that the tax appeal of Mauritius is an important part of the story,” acknowledging that this is “an increasingly less sustainable way to go.” It would be better for Mauritius to become “a conduit for international companies to come into Africa perhaps for the first time, facilitating new activity that wouldn’t otherwise exist,” he said. “Then you’re in win-win territory.”
“That’s not to say it’s going to be an easy transition,” Sienaert added. Like the March report from the World Bank, he had nothing to say about the IFC’s investments via Mauritius and gave the impression that he didn’t know they existed. And much like the staff at the office where the headquarters of Malawi Mangoes is registered on the island, he appeared surprised by our questions on the topic.
Last weekend, the World Bank brought together country delegations and development experts at its annual meetings in Indonesia. The IFC was there, too. At such conferences, grand statements are made while attendees tend to mill around banners bearing pledges to better the world.
Rather than repeating tired mantras about job-creating companies bringing prosperity to the poorest corners of Africa, these powerful international institutions—whose mandates are built around expanding shared prosperity and alleviating poverty—should be asking about the mango farmers in Malawi’s Salima district, and who profited (or didn’t) from the IFC’s support.
This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.