Looking for the next big market? It’s time to pay attention to Africa

Africa has made huge strides in recent years, with a rapidly-growing middle class, improved infrastructure and more robust institutions. Here, Matthew Partridge looks at the prospects for investors.


The size of Africa's middle class has tripled in the last decade

Given all that's going on in the world right now, you might feel like playing it safe.

Greece lingers like a bad smell. Chinese stocks have crashed. There are hints of interest rate rises from both the US and UK.

So you could be forgiven for feeling a bit worried about emerging markets, let along the even riskier frontier' markets.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

However, one part of the world is still quietly getting on with the task of growing and even low commodity prices can't stop it.

This morning I'd like to take a look at Africa.

Africa might be poor, but it's far from hopeless

However, the region has made huge strides in recent years. Growth has averaged around 5% a year over the last decade. This means that GDP doubles every 12 years. Other measures have improved greatly too.

Conflict has decreased, while new drugs have helped to bring the Aids epidemic under control. As a result, African life expectancy has risen rapidly from 50 years in 2000, to nearly 60 now. In the case of Botswana, it has shot up by 17 years in over a decade.

Combined with a high birth rate, this declining death rate means that Africa's population is expected to double in size over the next 35 years. While Europe and Asia struggle to deal with ageing, Africa will have the highest proportion of young people in the world.

It's not just demographics that give it an advantage. Africa is steadily making progress in building up its institutions and infrastructure. Despite the ongoing struggle with the terrorist group Boko Haram, Nigeria successfully held an election in March, with the defeated incumbent peacefully leaving office. That's something that would have seemed nigh-on impossible a decade or so ago.

Of course, Africa's other big problem has been the commodities curse'. Its vast resources of raw materials have proved to be more of a hindrance than a help. There are plenty of reasons for this, but the main one is that mineral wealth encourages leaders to get rich quick by plundering the country while spending fortunes on building up armies.

The dominance of mining and raw materials also crowded out investment in other sectors. So money that should go on improving infrastructure and finding a business model that take a nation higher up the value chain than simply digging stuff out of the ground and sending it elsewhere, was squandered on constant civil war and border skirmishing.

On top of this, during the 1970s and 1980s, many African countries used the commodity boom to rack up huge debts, which they struggled to repay as prices crashed.

How Africa is escaping the commodities curse'

One sign that Africa is moving out from under the shadow of minerals and energy dominance is the performance of Nigeria. Despite the price of oil falling by around 40%, it managed to grow by 6.3% in 2014. While growth is expected to slip to 4.5% this year, it should increase to 5.5% in 2016 and 5.8% in 2017.

As a result of this growth, there has been a rapid rise in the number of middle class' Africans. One estimate puts the number as high as one-third of the population.

Of course, the definition of middle class is very different to what you or I think of as middle class. The definitions span from someone earning $2 to $20 a day not what we would regard as middle income. But even if you use a more realistic definition - someone who consumes more than $15 a day the overall trend is upward.

A study last year by Standard Bank found that the number of people who were middle-income by global standards in 11 key countries had more than tripled from 4.6 million households to around 15 million within the last decade. They further predicted that this would rise by another 25 million in 15 years.

So what's the best way to invest? African stock markets are still in their infancy. The lack of liquidity and high risk means that funds tend to stick to the relatively developed regions, such as South Africa and Egypt, which aren't the most dynamic parts of the continent. As a result, the best way to gain direct exposure to Africa is to buy into a company listed on either the London or New York Stock Exchanges.

I'll be taking a look at some of the best ways to invest in Africa in the next issue of MoneyWeek magazine, out next Friday.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri