New investors eye African opportunities

The last few years have seen western countries take remarkable steps in changing their relations with Africa. For a number of decades, the west has been a provider of aid to Africa but in all too many cases this hasn’t turned into the broad based socio-economic development that was intended. Meanwhile, up and coming economies, such as China and Brazil, have approached Africa in a different way. These countries have embraced trade with Africa as a mutually beneficial activity, and it’s had a big impact.

Slowly western nations have woken up to these facts, most clearly this is evidenced by President Obama’s high profile ‘Power Africa’ initiative, a programme which almost directly emulates Chinese investment patterns in Africa with the use of state funds underwriting and financing large infrastructure projects. Elsewhere, Britain, Canada, France and Australia are all reshaping the way they think about aid, trade and international affairs towards commercial relations.

The private sector too has embraced Africa. Mobile phone companies, for example, were blown away by the demand for their products at all levels of African societies over the last decade. The success of these companies helped wake up other firms to the power of the African consumer and beverage companies, consumer goods, financial services firms and many others quickly followed suit.

China’s version of state-capitalism was particularly adept at seeing and seizing the opportunities available and the country was an early mover in investing in Africa. The ride hasn’t always been easy, but it is difficult to find an African country that hasn’t seen its economy in some way shaped by Chinese presence. Now though almost every global business, from finance to furniture, has some sort of Africa growth strategy.

For governments in Africa the opportunity is clear, business leaders the world over have recognised the potential and want to get involved, these new investment flows can be put to good use to build national economies. Meanwhile, African businesses are themselves becoming important players in a global sense with figures like Aliko Dangote and Tony Elumelu leading the way. New forms of collaboration, financing and strategic thinking are opening opportunities and delivering genuine transformation. Projects such as the East African Exchange in Rwanda, Rift Valley Railway in Kenya, Kusile Power Station in South Africa and the Ghana Natural Gas Project are increasing access to markets, reducing operating costs and helping create the long term conditions for economic growth. Projects such as the Inga Dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, Bagamoyo Port in Tanzania and the Simandou mine in Guinea have the power to transform not just countries, but whole regions.

Investors with long term outlooks, such as pension funds and sovereign wealth funds, will help fundamentally shift the pattern of investment into Africa. These bodies, through their lengthy outlooks and lower risk appetite, think about business in a different way. For these investors national stability and socio-economic development is as critical over a twenty or thirty year investment life cycle as it is for national governments. Colin Melvin, CEO of Hermes Equity Ownership Services, a firm that advises institutional investors explained the principle, “we don’t see a trade off between good behaviour and long-term investment; it is the same thing.”

Governments in Africa also have a strong role in attracting the right investors. For Rob Hersov, serial entrepreneur and chairman of Invest Africa, a members club for family offices and high net worth individuals, this includes transparency, good governance and legislative stability. “Foreign investors have a choice… If you want my investors to invest, create an environment that welcomes them, treat them with respect, allow them to make money – and allow you the government to tax those profits – that’s fair.”

Perceptions of opportunity are changing and investors like Henry Gabay, whose Duet Group manages US$5.3bn in assets, are looking to the emerging middle class, “supermarkets, retail banking, domestic food distribution, cement, beer, pharmaceuticals are the sectors that I focus on,” he said. Crucially though, no sector guarantees safe sailing for investors, one of the most important lessons he’s learnt from investing in other emerging and frontier markets is patience; “you need to think 10-20 years; the continent will grow, the young people will grow, the middle class will surge.”

This October the Global African Investment Summit brings together these groups. African governments are coming to London to meet the international investment community with the focus firmly on making deals for critical projects in the areas of infrastructure, agriculture, natural resources and telecommunications. Presidents from Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana are bringing key ministers and CEOs of state owned enterprises to highlight bankable projects in their countries to institutional investors, corporations and financiers. Uniquely the summit brings investors from all corners of the world – European, American, North African and Asian financiers, corporations and international service providers will all be present, helping African governments attract the highest quality partners and helping investors identify the highest quality opportunities.

The success of Africa in attracting the world’s best investors will be critical for turning Africa’s decade of growth into long-term social and economic development. Helping African governments identify the right partners, and helping investors identify the right projects, is a crucial element of this process.

Paul Sinclair is the event director of The Global African Investment Summit