European vs South African Valuations – A Triple Edged Sword

By Craig Kirsten on 31 Aug 2022

For South African business owners, the economic stability of Europe coupled with business-friendly legislation makes the continent a desirable place for expansion. While these factors are attractive, access to financing and the potential for lucrative upside when exiting a business are the real drawcards.

We recently performed a valuation exercise for a client who intends to swap shares in a successful South African application software company for those of a similar company in the Netherlands. While these companies operate in the same industry, we found the comparative valuations to be vastly different.

The 3 factors that had the greatest impact on the valuation – the ” triple edge sword” –  were the valuation multiples, the cost of debt, and the cost of equity.

Valuation Multiples

When we perform valuations, we use search parameters to screen hundreds of companies within a comparable industry and/or geographic region. Through this process, we derive a range of companies deemed comparable to our subject. Without regard to a specific industry, we found that the median EV/EBITDA multiple (i.e. the value of a company over its earnings) of selected listed companies in the Netherlands was just under 12x, whereas in South Africa, the multiple was just over 6x. Assuming that our South African and Netherlands companies achieve the same currency-adjusted EBITDA, our South African company takes a valuation hit of about 50% before we even consider the cost of capital for the business.

A report compiled by the CAIA Association echoes our findings, stating that EBITDA multiples in Europe during 2020 approached 12.6x, while in Africa, multiples were between 4x and 8x.

Cost of Debt

The CAIA Association also alludes to the second edge of the sword –the cost of debt – suggesting that higher valuations are likely a result of prolonged quantitative easing and low-interest rates in developed countries. Access to debt at low-interest rates benefits a business from a valuation perspective, as the weighted average cost of capital (“ WACC” ) used to discount the company’s cash flows is lower (lower discount = higher value). The OECD reports that SMEs in the Netherlands have access to debt at an interest rate of 3.3% per annum, whereas we know from experience that an SME in South Africa will be lucky to service debt at less than 15% per annum. In our example below, if both companies were financed entirely by debt, a South African company would achieve a valuation of about 30% lower than a Netherlands comparable.

Cost of Equity

The third edge of the sword and the second component of WACC –the cost of equity – is essentially sharpened by the stark contrasts in the economic climate between Europe and South Africa. Using the capital asset pricing model (“ CAPM ”) to derive a cost of equity, our starting point is the “risk-free rate”. As mentioned, developed countries have benefited from a period of quantitative easing which sees the yield on 10-year government bonds (a proxy for the risk-free rate) in the Netherlands at 1.4% at the time of writing, versus a yield of just over 10% in South Africa. This makes South African bonds an attractive investment but greatly elevates the cost of equity which is detrimental to a South African company’s valuation.

The other levers for the CAPM formula are the market risk premium and “beta”. The latter measures how a company reacts to systematic market risk and is generally lower in developed markets vs emerging markets. Put simply, this means companies in developed markets are less exposed to downturns in the market. The measure is highly dependent on industry and would not be considered a main component of the differences in valuations between European and South African companies. Market risk premiums, however, can increase the discount rate considerably. A South African equity risk premium is circa 7%, versus circa 4% in the Netherlands, based on research done by Prof. Damodaran of NYU Stern. Interestingly, the combined difference in risk-free rate and market risk premium results in a South African company achieving a valuation that is again 30% lower than the Netherlands comparable (again, assuming all else equal).

There are, of course, many other factors to consider when performing a valuation; however, based on these 3 simple metrics alone, it is clear to see why South African business owners look outside of the country to unlock greater value for their companies.


CAIA Association. (2021). African Private Equity Returns, Risk and Potential in a Global Context – Part I | Portfolio for the Future . [online] Available at:   [Accessed 19 Aug. 2022].

OECDiLibrary. (n.d.). Financing SMEs and Entrepreneurs: An OECD Scoreboard (The Netherlands) . [online] Available at:   [Accessed 19 Aug. 2022]. (2022). South Africa Government Bond 10Y . [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Aug. 2022]. (2022). Netherlands Government Bond 10Y . [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Aug. 2022].

Damodaran, A. (2021). Country Default Spreads and Risk Premiums . [online] Available at: . [Accessed 19 Aug. 2022].