Light on the “Dark Continent”

Past news from “The "Dark Continent” has indeed been dark: dominated by war, famine and pestilence. But now Africa has become a source of good news

Democracy has been taking root Africa's politically arid soil, economic growth has been blossoming and some of its inhabitants have been reaping a harvest of better incomes and business profits.

That is not to dismiss the problems of severe drought and ungovernable places like Somalia and Libya, but the continent as a whole has seen a respectable annual growth of 5.5% in recent years.

Much of Africa’s growth has piggybacked on the global commodity "supercycle" which, sadly, now looks well and truly spent. But for Africa that is a temporary set back: developments like Guinea's massive iron ore reserves, Mozambican coal mining potential and plans to exploit oil discoveries in Tanzania have all fuelled recent growth. But with about 30% of the world’s total mineral reserves and even a higher share of deposits of diamonds, vanadium, manganese, platinum, cobalt and gold Africa will still benefit from what lies beneath – in the long term.

Tigers versus lions

Africa needs more than one string to its bow and a former deputy governor of the Nigerian central bank recently said it is time for Africa to "industrialise" to balance the primary sector. It is unquestionable that the roar of the African industrial lion has been muted next to the tigers of Asia; nowhere in Africa can compare the technological take off in South Korea, with China setting in train an exporting behemoth and Bangladesh going literally from rags to riches by sewing its way to prosperity.

But Africa has been there before: in the 1980s and 1990s the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) promoted its "Industrial Decade of Africa" to little avail. Today Africa represents a mere 1% of global industrial output. Africa has undoubted industrial potential, not least in the beneficiation of the raw materials that are currently exported without any value added.

Africa's inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI), are not directed to manufacturing. The 2015 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) World Development Report shows only 21% of inflows were into the manufacturing - ten per cent less than the primary sector.

Always something new out of Africa

But the overriding trend in foreign investment in Africa in the services sector at 48% of the total. And, notwithstanding Barclays decision to withdraw from Africa, it was the financial services sector that attracted a lion’s share of FDI.

Much of the investment in financial services was in Morocco and South Africa, investments by the likes of BNP Paribas, AIG, Boston Consulting Group and China’s largest bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China herald the groundwork for the delivery of financial services, not only in those countries, but spreading out to their regions and the continent.

Anyone who remembers the trickle of banks, investment managers and professional services firms into Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall may see the beginnings of a trend.

The fact that foreign investment in infrastructure including transport, storage and telecommunications is second to investment in financial services could be suggesting the makings of an African economic renaissance.

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