By Arab News
By Hafed Al-Ghwell*
If you went back in time for about three decades, any talk of Africa as an investment destination would have earned you mocking laughter and a raft of dismissals even in the highest levels of political and economic thought.
After decades of European colonialism and independence struggles, African nations still had to contend with the birthing pains of new socio-political orders that arrived in the wake of newly installed regimes which remained deeply tied to their former colonizers.
The Cold War did not help either, as new governments contended with the slow, painstaking establishment of public institutions. Most of these emergent states would collapse, dispensing with their initial dreams of “democracy” and, indeed, stability altogether in favor of authoritarianism that unleashed a wave of violence, human rights abuses, corruption and prolonged chaos. All in one way or another were financed by money from international institutions like the World Bank, IMF and international donors from their former occupiers in the West’s struggle against the Soviet Union and international communism.
The worst result of those tumultuous years was the lack of investment in critical economic sectors like education, health care and infrastructure. As a result, gifted thinkers, policy-makers, technocrats, bureaucrats, educators, health-care professionals, engineers and many others fled, leading to a catastrophic brain drain that continues to hamstring Africa’s potential to this day. At one point, UNDP estimated that Africa was losing 20,000 such professionals a year since 1990.
What’s more, as new governments and dictatorships failed to provide and/or deliver on grandiose promises, disaffected heads of armed forces and groups would take matters into their own hands, only to descend into the same cronyism, kleptocracy, corruption and poor governance that was characteristic of previous regimes.
As this cycle repeated itself over the years, an unspoken conclusion was beginning to emerge concerning the continent. Africa was almost a lost cause. Any positive developments were greeted with skepticism as past trends had revealed that nothing “positive” would be permanent in Africa. Far too many now held vested interests in the lopsided social, political and economic orders to be found in many African nations.
In fact, it would seem that Africa would greet the 21st century in this way, missed by most of the same opportunities that had successfully transformed China and most of Asia into economic powerhouses on par with the rest of the developed world.
But with Asia coming into its own as well as the Gulf Countries (GCC) undergoing ambitious economic transformations, which region or continent was the “next” investment destination?
Until Asia emerged, in the latter quarter of the 20th century, with a voracious appetite for commodities and resources, their attention began to focus on Latin America and Africa. At one point, Latin American economies were posting GDP growth rates upwards of 5-6 percent per year. Currently, much of this growth has slowed down dramatically, not helped by Asia’s declining commodity consumption and political turmoils like Brazil’s corruption scandals and Venezuela’s endless political and economic woes despite its large oil reserves.
Thus, as markets mature and foreign investments saturate in Asia, Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe and India, the only investment destination left is Africa.
For the longest time, Africa has contributed its share of resources to the world economy, dating back centuries, but now it’s beginning to be viewed as an investment destination, not merely an exporter of commodities.
Currently, Africa’s population stands at more than 1.2 billion people, which is 15 percent of the world’s population and projected to rise to 1.5 billion by 2025. It is the second-most populous continent in the world. The continent is also vast, taking up 20 percent of the planet’s total land area. Its geography is as diverse as the languages, cultures and ethnicities that can be found all over the continent. The continent, in fact, can comfortably swallow India, China, the United Kingdom, Japan, Europe and the United States. Its favorable geographical location means that there is plentiful of arable land for agricultural production, a fact that has remained true over millennia. If history is anything to go by, Africa also has a lot of above and underground natural resources. In fact, it is considered one of the wealthiest continents in the world for this fact alone.
Consider this: While the continent only has about 8 percent of the world’s natural gas, 45 out of 54 countries on the continent have oil reserves. Additionally, Africa has 57 percent of the planet’s cobalt, nearly half of the world’s diamonds and manganese, a third of its phosphate and nearly a quarter of its gold. The abundance of rivers and lakes in Africa gives the continent a sizable hydro power potential of 1,800 terawatt hours per year, roughly 12 percent of the world’s potential. The Sahara is the hottest desert in the world, and combined with the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, give Africa an estimated 60,000,000 terawatt hours per year in solar energy reserves (roughly 40 percent of the world’s solar potential).
In short, there is enormous potential in Africa, and foreign investors have taken notice. FDI inflows are now projected to reach $50 billion this year, an increase from 2017’s $42 billion figure.
Much of these inflows are buoyed by commodity prices and thus, when prices dip in global markets, investors get cautious. However, as already noted above, Africa’s true potential is not just bound in the abundance of commodities or mineral resources from its soils: It’s in its people and geography.
Ultimately, it is no longer a laughable proposal to consider investing in Africa. In fact, between 2006 and 2011, the continent was registering the highest returns on FDI at 11.4 percent, even higher than Asia at 9.1 percent, while the global average was 7.1 percent.
Indeed, it seems that Africa’s time has finally arrived.
*Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advance International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell