14. Februar 2015

Why Africa? Why Now?

I have never wanted to go to Africa. I am generally a curious person, keen to discover the world. But so far, I haven’t felt much of a curiosity about Africa. My previous thoughts on Africa have usually evoked a feeling of depression, resignation and creeping fear of its uncountable and often unintelligible conflicts. As often, my aversion was largely based on ignorance. The later was well shaken when I attended this year’s Mining INDABA in Cape Town, the biggest conference on the African continent. In case you were wondering, INDABA is a traditional Zulu language word which is now used across South Africa to refer to an important meeting.

In a generally very interesting program, one event stood out for me. The panel discussion ‘Why Africa? Why Now?’ impressed me with its contagious enthusiasm for the building momentum in Africa. The panel was chaired by the founding editor of Forbes Africa, Chris Bishop and consisted of the founding members and chief executives of a number of heavy international investment funds which are active in Africa: Bob Diamond (Atlas), Robert Hersov (Invest Africa), Paolo Scaroni (Rothschild) and Ashish Thakkar (Mara Group & Mara Foundation). Putting their serious job titles aside – their discussion had a note of children sitting around a currently discovered treasure map.

Apparently, Sub-Saharan Africa is attracting an unprecedented high of investments. Investors are drawn by unparalleled ratios of return of more than 20% and lower risks than in other regions such as Russia and China. They are pleased to cooperate with governments which increasingly understand the investors’ needs for reliable governance systems and stable regulatory frameworks. Moreover, the options for investments are vast. Next to an abundance of natural resources found in 46 of 54 African countries, Africa disposes of a huge and constantly growing middle class. In fact, consumption products – not extractives – are currently the biggest destination for foreign direct investment in Africa.

Of course, not all worries are unfounded. In particular, the absence of adequate power supply and infrastructure impede even higher investment rates. To resolve these issues the panelists suggested that energy generation and distribution should be liberalized. Moreover, education was considered paramount – in particular for a population of which more than 50% are younger than 25 years old. Another pressing issue are Africa’s borders which need to become more permeable for people, goods and services in order to boost intra African trade.

Despite all obstacles the panelists agreed that the investment run on Africa is just beginning. There is still a huge perception-reality gap on what is really possible in Africa. However, slowly word is beginning to spread on African success stories such as Rwanda. The panelists claimed that Rwanda now possesses a more attractive business environment than Italy. Its efforts on good governance and stimulating regulation compensate for its limited natural resources and draw a lot of foreign direct investment. Another success story is that of mobile communication in Nigeria. After the full liberalization of Nigeria’s telecommunications sector mobile communication flooded Nigeria practically over night. Other sectors which are expected to grow rapidly are e-commerce, hydrocarbons and mobile payment systems.

Long story short, the panelists were very optimistic about the prospects for Africa and their enthusiasm was contagious. They agreed that anyone who is still reluctant to invest in Africa will painfully regret this in 10 years from now. However, so far only US-American and Middle Eastern investors have recognized these opportunities. As I was leaving the discussion I was counting my pocket money for potential investments. Then a troubling question crossed my mind: Where is Europe?