Africa: Ripe for investment

africa economy cell phones
The rapid growth of mobile subscribers in Africa is a big draw for investors. While Africa is the fasting growing mobile market in the word, the rate of mobile penetration in Africa is the lowest rate among the world regions.

When it comes to investing around the globe, most investors take a detour around Africa, but experts say that's a mistake.

Over the past decade, Africa has been the second-fastest growing economy in the world, with GDP accelerating more than 5% a year on average, according to the World Bank.

And even as the global economy has slowed in recent months, growth in Africa has largely remained on track, with the World Bank predicting the continent could be on "the brink of an economic takeoff, much like China was 30 years ago, and India 20 years ago."

Africa's natural resources are certainly a big driver of the growth, but an even bigger factor is the continent's rising consumer class.

"The consumer demand in Africa is enormous," said Larry Seruma, managing principal at Nile Capital Management and manager of the Nile Pan Africa Fund (NAFAX), the only U.S. mutual fund to focus exclusively on the continent of Africa.

According to McKinsey Global Institute, household consumption is now higher in Africa than in India or Russia, and is only expected to surge further. In fact, the number of African households with discretionary income is expected to jump by more than 50% to almost 130 million by 2020.

Seruma's fund is largely invested in Nigeria, Africa's second-largest economy, where economic growth has clocked in around 6% each quarter in 2012, and stocks have surged more than 30% year-to-date.

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One way Seruma's fund profits from Africa's rising consumer class is through food and beverage stocks. Two of the fund's top holdings include Guinness Nigeria, a subsidiary of the world's largest spirits maker Diageo (DEO), as well as Nestle Nigeria, a unit of Swiss-based Nestle (NSRGF), the world's biggest food company.

The fund, which is up more than 30% in 2012, also includes a number of financial service institutions, including First Bank of Nigeria, Zenith Bank and Guaranty Trust Bank.

"Nigeria has over 160 million people, but only 20 million operate bank accounts," said Seruma. "As more of the population starts banking, we'll see a lot of growth in that sector: more deposits, more business lending, more mortgage loans. There is so much more growth to go."

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The rapid growth of mobile subscribers in Africa is also a big draw for investors.

While Africa is the fasting growing mobile market in the word, with subscriptions growing nearly 20% annually, the rate of mobile penetration in Africa is less than 70%, far below the world average of 91% and the lowest regional rate, according to London research firm Informa Telecoms & Media.

"The rate of mobile growth in Africa is unheard of," said Peter Thoms, founder and portfolio manager of Africa Capital Group, a Coronado, Calif.-based investment firm that manages Africa-focused portfolios for U.S.-based investors.

To capitalize on the growth prospects, Africa Capital Group owns shares in Vodacom, which provides mobile service in South Africa, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Lesotho, and pays a dividend just above 7%.

Where BlackBerry is still hot: Nigeria
Where BlackBerry is still hot: Nigeria

Thoms is also attracted to the company because it trades on the Johannesburg stock exchange.

"We're looking for companies that have significant operations in sub-Saharan Africa, but we want to buy them in developed markets that have first-world trading and execution," said Thoms, who also buys Africa-focused companies that trade on the London stock exchange. "In local African markets, there's not as much liquidity."

One company that Thoms is keeping a close eye on is Dangote Cement, the biggest company on the Nigerian Stock Exchange that's hoping to list its shares on the London Stock Exchange.

"Dangote Cement is an absolute juggernaut," said Thoms. "The amount of cement Africa needs to grow its infrastructure -- build bridges, dams, and railways -- is off the charts. The company already has strong revenue and high profit margins, and there's nothing to stop it from selling a lot more cement over the next couple of decades."

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While Thoms sees the lack of liquidity in local African financial markets as an obstacle, he's not as worried about the political turmoil throughout the continent.

"One of the main knocks against investing in Africa is the risk of political instability and coup d'etats, but investors need to realize that Africa is a big continent with 54 countries," said Thoms. "What happens on the ground in Mali doesn't affect South Africa much because all the different countries still have very domestic economies that aren't too interrelated yet. That gives you built-in diversification."

And investors are taking notice. During the first three quarters of 2012, African stocks attracted more than $2 billion, according to EPFR Global. That's strong in comparison to 2011, when they lost around $1.2 billion.

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African bonds are also beginning to gain traction.

"Economic performance in emerging markets will continue to outpace that of developed markets, and global interest rates should remain low," said Marcelo Assalin, portfolio manager for emerging market debt at ING Investment Management. "That's a powerful combination of factors working for emerging market debt, and attractive for investors seeking higher yields."

Assalin owns Namibian bonds, which are investment grade rated but offer a 10-yield near 9%, much higher than the average investment grade emerging market sovereign debt, as well as Nigerian bonds, which have gained investor attention after being added to Barclays' and JPMorgan's benchmark emerging markets bond indices.

"After the inclusion, we saw a significant rally in Nigerian local bonds," said Assalin. "Those types of developments are very powerful and attract huge inflows of capital."

As economies continue to develop throughout the continent, Assalin expects more local African bonds to gain widespread attention from investors.

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