The conversation about Africa is shifting from one of “deficits” and “gaps” to one about opportunities, prospects, ventures and creativity. That’s not news to companies that have paid close attention to the continent and invested there. The fast growing youth population, the urbanisation expected to drive over 50% of Africans to cities by 2050, and Africa’s formalising economy are all well known. These trends and other developments have driven a half century or more of growth in Africa, and will continue to do so.
It’s important to acknowledge that Africa tests an investor’s patience. Time horizons and return models that fit other markets don’t always work in there. Even the most experienced, sophisticated companies can be forced to recalibrate, as Nestlé did last year when it announced a 15% cut in its workforce across 21 African countries.
Deficits remain. What’s important is that investors now realise there is money to be made for those bold enough to help close the gaps. As that takes place, the promise of greater prosperity for Africans and African businesses will be realised. Why is it a good time to invest?
1. Africa needs ‘connectors’
Missing across much of sub-Saharan Africa are the roads, rails, ports, airports, power grids and IT backbone needed to lift African economies. This lack of infrastructure hinders the growth of imports, exports, and regional business.
Companies that can connect Africans and markets can prosper. Sub-Saharan Africa is plagued by power outages – almost 700 hours a year on average – sapping productivity, adding cost and leaving businesses captive to back-up and alternative power options. Massive investment is leading to major upgrades and expansion at African ports and airports, but much of Africa’s growth potential depends on in-country and intra-African road, rail and air connections.
Roads and rail lines are sparse, decrepit and over-burdened. A lack of aviation agreements has limited intra-African air connections. Africa’s lack of efficient storage and distribution infrastructure hinders businesses, entrepreneurs and farmers. Up to 50% of African fruit and vegetables spoil before reaching markets.
There’s a soft infrastructure deficit, as well. Outside of South Africa, the data and information critical to decision-making by businesses is missing or hard to obtain – credit and risk information, market data, consumption patterns, you name it. Lessons from Dubai and Singapore tell us that once an infrastructure race is on in a rapidly expanding market, being the first-mover is a significant advantage for investors.
2. African trade barriers are falling and intra-African trade holds enormous potential
With the 54-nation Continental Free Trade Area – Africa’s own mega-trade deal – even the smallest African economies could see a lift. If duties are lowered and incentives introduced, manufacturers could see benefit from setting up production and assembly operations in multiple African countries. That could lead to development in electronics, machinery, chemicals, textile production and processed foods.
As a first step, free trade between and within the African economic blocs would make a huge difference. Africa’s share of global trade – a meager 3% – can only increase if the continent’s commodity and consumption-led economies begin to produce a broad array of goods for home markets and export.
And an increase in local beneficiation in the commodities sector could be a driver of growth – processing local commodities (such as minerals, coffee, cotton) in country rather than exporting them in raw form. That said, it will continue to be a challenge for regions with poor power and infrastructure to compete as global manufacturers.
3. Customers are changing
With the growth of Africa’s middle class, we’re seeing development of new expectations. Educated, urban professionals are young, brand-aware and sophisticated in terms of their consumption. Retailers and consumer brands want to anticipate and drive buying preferences in fashion, home and lifestyle products, but they know they need international standard supply chains if they are to meet demand. The largest economic forces in Africa are small to medium enterprises, working to meet this new demand and competing with global brands.
4. Digital transformation
Africa leads the world in mobile adoption, which continues to offer the biggest cross-sectoral economic opportunities. Mobile payment networks, pioneered in East Africa, opened the wired, global economy to poor, unbanked city and rural dwellers. Companies such as Novartis are using mobile communications to manage their supply chain; Olam has used mobile to reach out to new African suppliers and farmers. These mobile initiatives have achieved huge successes.
To illustrate: In 2014, Ethiopia set up a telephone hotline allowing small farmers immediate access to advice from agronomists, with over 3 million calls done in the first six months of the pilot programme. Mobile is the area where Africa has pushed beyond the boundaries in the developed world, and African tech incubators are pushing to innovate. So what’s next?
5. Africa is diversifying
African economies are finally beginning to diversify beyond commodities, though this is still in the early stages. Africa is seeing a returning diaspora that recognises the potential and opportunities in their own countries. This population supports local economic growth with their skills and talent, by acting as “first movers”, investing back in their communities.
At the same time, African countries are beginning to place bets on non-commodity areas where they can be competitive. And they are packaging themselves to appeal to a broader set of investors. Recognising they can no longer count on growing investment from China, every country now has what are called “Investment Promotion Agencies”, which act as one-stop shops for investors, assisting with registration, taxes, and other steps to establish companies locally.
6. Africa can lead in sustainable development
In energy, technology, supply chain design and other areas, Africa has the ability to look at what works elsewhere then fashion its own answers. It can openly embrace new technology and ideas, with no historical imprint from which to break free. It can develop flexible fuel grids that generate power with a mix of abundant wind, solar, hydro and bio energy, alongside conventional fuels such as oil and gas, which are also abundant. Nowhere on Earth is there as much unused or poorly used arable land, so look for big agricultural breakthroughs and productivity gains in food production in Africa.
Business leaders are hungry for vibrant new markets and consumers know the reality: globalisation means there are too few remaining frontiers. As the developed world matures, and becomes increasingly difficult to trade in as a result of factors from legislation to terrorism, opportunities for corporate growth are limited. There are too few places where entrepreneurs and businesses with ideas and an appetite for risk can bring value and find long-term growth if they are persistent, creative and determined. But there’s something else they know: Africa is still such a place.
Tarek Sultan Al Essa is CEO and vice-chairman, Board of Agility, Kuwait.
This article is part of the World Economic Forum’s Africa series. You can read more here.