About a century ago no one took Africa seriously. It was a continent; some say a wilderness, of primitive people with rudimentary cultures such as hunting and rubbing dry wood to generate fire.
But time works miracles. Africans now wear designer clothes, drive sleek cars and, yes, talk on cell-phones. This means Africa is an investment hub. From toothpaste manufacturers to plane makers, this continent of 800 million people has been the focus in the post-World War II era, economically speaking.
?In the past, with the African continent?s history of political difficulty, ethnic conflict, and poor infrastructure and social services, it would have been very difficult to envision images that represent either of these?,? say Justin F. Beckett and Michael E. M. Sudarkasa in their book, Investing in Africa: An Insider's Guide to the Ultimate Emerging Market. ?And if the words did conjure up such visions, they would most likely be images placed in a far-off future.?
But an ?Africa Incorporated? that draws to mind an image of one economically focused region aggressively engaged in production and marketing in a competitive world, which would most likely have been criticized as unrealistically idealistic, according to the two and many other experts, is a now reality.
?Investment is vital to Africa?s development,? says Prof Ibrahim Gambari, an under secretary-general and special adviser on Africa for NEPAD. ?The economic reforms implemented in the past decade were aimed to, among other things, raise the level of efficiency of investment, including private foreign investment.?
Gambari, in a paper titled ?Investing in Africa: The Potential of NEPAD and Continuing Challenges,? says the New Partnership for Africa?s Development represents a new and important beginning for a continent where over half the population lives on less than a dollar per day. ?It aims to address some of the issues that have hindered Africa?s development,? he said in the paper he presented at a recent Forum Africa meeting held in Motreal, Canada.
Eve Mark Mobius, one of the world?s most respected expert on emerging market investments, acknowledges in his recent book Passport to Profits, Africa as the Investment World?s Last Frontier, that Africa offers unique unexplored opportunities for development, growth, and economic success.
?Never before have so many African nations focused consistently and concertedly on promoting their investment opportunities, improving their business environments, and developing accords with their neighbors to enhance their collective market size,? say Beckett and Sudarkasa.
The Information Age has played a tremendous role in Africa?s realization that there are almost irreversible penalties for being excluded from the world economy, they argue. Thus, the development of telecommunications infrastructure has become a priority.
A recent study by UK mobile Vodafone shows that mobile phone use in Africa is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. According to the report, more than 85% of small businesses run by black people in South Africa rely solely on mobile phones for telecommunications. About 62% of businesses in South Africa, and 59% in Egypt, said mobile use had led to an increase in profits despite higher call costs, while 97% of people surveyed in Tanzania, East Africa, said they could access a mobile phone, but only 28% could access a land line phone. With a market population of 800 million people, Africa has lately become the place to invest, especially in telecommunications.
Mr Stephen Yeo, chief executive of the Center for Economic Policy Research, which hosted the launch of the report, said Africa had an explosive growth of 5,000% between 1998 and 2003.
Meanwhile, most governments in Africa are encouraging private players in most sectors and polishing their legal and regulatory frameworks to accommodate them. In fact, NEPAD?s most innovative program yet, the Africa Peer Review Mechanism, or APRM, monitors progress toward good economic, political and corporate governance. APRM seeks to foster the adoption of polices, standards and practices that lead to political stability and economic growth.
?By committing African governments to a high standard of economic management and transparent political processes, the APRM will provide an enabling environment for investment,? says Prof Gambari.
The liberalization of the financial sector to allow freer and safer transfers of capital, intra-region and globally, has also assumed precedence. Regionalization, global competitiveness, connectivity, privatization, democracy (except for a few cases like Zimbabwe and Togo), and free markets have become the collective benchmark for assessing progress in Africa, as is done in other developing countries in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.
The 53 African nations have made great strides toward successfully achieving these tenets of development. ?Often they have forged ahead on a one-by-one basis, while in other cases, as in the French-speaking countries of West and Central Africa, they have made collective strides,? say Beckett and Sudarkasa.
Well-calculated regional economic competition between neighbors such as Ghana and C?d?Ivoire in West Africa, Kenya and Uganda in East Africa, and Zimbabwe and South Africa, while still existent, are giving way to far more constructive dialogue about collaboration, joint venturing, and economic partnership, they say.
Admittedly, though, some of the countries of Africa have been more successful than others in their economic endeavors. Ghana, Uganda, and Botswana are three examples of countries that have made major leaps in development. On the other hand, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Algeria, and Sudan continue to struggle to make the grade as successful emerging markets. Newfound peace in Sudan that ended 21 years of civil strife has Africa?s largest country yawning for investment ? from road construction to rebuilding of airports, schools and other institutions.
Africa is a market for products, as an overseas destination for outsourced manufacturing operations, and as an investment destination for institutional portfolio capital. Indeed it is the world?s least-explored region, experts say.
Fierce competition among companies, skyrocketing prices for public equities valuations for publicly traded securities, mature markets with low growth prospects have yet to arrive on the continent.
So what makes Africa such an attractive investment destination? According to the Beckett and Sudarkasa:
? Africa?s resources are increasingly in demand, especially from emerging Asian economies.
? Africa?s governments are now promoting private-sector-led, export-oriented economies.
? Africa?s resource-based companies have become more productive and globally competitive.
? Domestic political considerations are becoming less intrusive on the business environment, while privatization is reviving key sectors of the economy.
? The opening of new stock markets and the rejuvenation of existing ones are enhancing the role of capital and so broadening opportunities for portfolio investors.
? Foreign investment is returning, especially in the natural resources sector. Regional economic co-operation is occurring in such key areas as infrastructure, development and transportation.
? The end of the era of fixed exchange rates is allowing more realistic, market-determined economic conditions as currencies are allowed to float freely.
? Liberalization of agricultural marketing boards is reviving export-oriented crop production.
? The advent of accountability in government is seeing the political appointee replaced by the technocrat - and South African corporations are now spreading their skills, technologies, products and capital across the African continent.
With some of the world?s most concentrated mineral, oil, and gas reserves, Africans recognize that there is yet-untapped value to be developed through the enhancement of their natural resources. Apart from agriculture ? its backbone ? textile, manufactured goods, and services exports (particularly in South Africa) have grown significantly in the past decade.
Africa?s top 10 industrial companies as measured by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization?s manufacturing value-added (MVA) include South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, Cameroon, C?d?Ivoire and Zimbabwe. The critical factor noted by studies of Africa?s industrialization is the rapidity with which it is taking place.
Overall, UNIDO notes that Africa is industrializing at nearly 5% per annum, which is deemed to be a very positive factor. Certain countries, such as Uganda (13-plus +%), Lesotho and Libya (10%) and Ethiopia and Mauritius (6%) are even exceeding the 5% average.
For foreign manufacturers looking to establish facilities on the African continent, South Africa has emerged as a favorite destination. And growth within that country?s indigenous manufacturing sector has also been fueled by the flow of capital into the continent?s largest stock market in Johannesburg.
Privatization and commercialization programs continue to gain momentum, while stock markets and private equity and venture capital funds continue to facilitate the growing flow of private capital into African businesses.
?After a decade of implementing change, it is time to unveil the new-model Africa, the more confident and qualified partner-Africa,? Say Beckett and Sudarkasa. ?For those seeking above-average returns and to benefit from being a first mover in the world?s last great market, the time to explore Africa is now.?
Prof Gambari, the NEPAD under-secretary-general and adviser on Africa, says the international community has an important role in fostering investment on the continent. Most transnational corporations operating in Africa, he notes, have been reaping significant dividends from their investments at a rate of return higher than other regions.
?Corporations profiting from investment in Africa should spread the word about their positive experiences and also work closely with the indigenous private sector in the spirit of partnership and for mutual benefit,? says Prof Gambari. ?That?s not too much to ask or do to help boost investment in Africa.?
Philip Anyera is a staff writer of the African Executive magazine.
By Philip Anyera
African Executive Writer
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