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Optimism and ambivalence for investors in sub-Saharan Africa

A Ugandan worker levels the ground at a solar plant in Soroti, east of Kampala.

Stephen Wandera/The Associated Press

For investors interested in sub-Saharan Africa, it may be the best of times or the worst of times, but it's not easy to tell the difference.

The region, made up of 46 out of Africa's 54 countries, is ripe with opportunity. It has a young and growing population, a rapidly expanding middle class and quickly advancing technology in sectors such as telecommunications, fintech and renewable energy. And of course Africa is rich in resources.

At the same time, these countries face familiar, lingering problems – corruption, political instability, despotism, uncomfortable regulations, war, famine and a seemingly endless flow of refugees.

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Still, there's optimism.

"The time is now to invest," says Nola Kianza, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Council on Africa, based in Toronto.

He admits it's a self-serving view, as he leads an organization dedicated to promoting trade between Canada and the sub-Saharan countries.

It's almost a startling statement, given recent developments such as the ruling by Kenya's supreme court that overturned that country's Aug. 8 election results and ordered a new vote to take place.

"But if we just look at some of the numbers, the market is there," Mr. Kianza says. "The population is predicted to double [in sub-Saharan Africa] by 2050, from 1.2 billion to 2.5 billion."

While economic growth ebbs and flows, there is ever-increasing demand for new infrastructure and better housing – opportunities for cement, construction and heavy machinery firms.

Demand is also on the upswing for up-to-date technology – some 40 per cent of Kenya's GDP depends on transactions made by mobile payments, and in countries such as Ghana and Uganda there's a push for locally distributed solar energy.

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According to the World Bank, the collective GDP for the sub-Saharan countries climbed dramatically to $1.775-trillion in 2014 from $368-billion (U.S.) in 2000, although GDP and per-capita incomes have slipped a bit since then, partly due to low oil and resource prices.

Ghana and Ivory Coast are destined to share part of a $145-million fund to boost infrastructure as part of a Compact With Africa deal endorsed at the most recent G20 meeting in Hamburg last June. (Tunisia, in North Africa, will also share the fund.)

Alternative energy companies in Ghana are seeking to supply small-scale solar equipment to supplant the country's most recent major source of electricity, stinky coal-burning power plants floating on barges leased from Turkey and anchored off the coast.

Growth and recovery are uneven in the sub-Sahara, though.

Kenya, often considered East Africa's economic powerhouse, now has to contend with its do-over election. And Nigeria, with 188 million people, is just emerging from its worst slump in 25 years.

The latter country is perhaps another example of the difficulty in knowing whether investors should see sub-Saharan prospects as half empty or half full. Nigeria finally recorded an expanding economy in the second quarter of this year after relaxing currency controls and putting new emphasis on boosting its agriculture.

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In April, the Nigerian government loosened the strict exchange controls on its currency, the naira, allowing foreign businesses to convert their funds at banks but using exchange rates closer to the black market than the artificial, unrealistic official rates.

While currency-exchange rules may seem like a no-brainer in developed countries, control of the currency in Africa is important to businesses that seek to reward their investors and have funds available to expand, buy equipment, hire and invest locally.

Nigeria has also been encouraging growth in agriculture, its second largest economic sector after oil. While petroleum prices languish and rigs are being dismantled, agriculture expanded by 3 per cent in the second quarter compared with last year – nearly double the tepid 1.6-per-cent growth in the oil sector.

How can investors, including institutional investors, make sense of a sprawling region with so much promise and so much risk?

"I would caution about being selective in picking target countries and sectors for investing," says Scott McCaw, CEO of Panafrican Group, a Canadian-owned company based in Dubai that sells heavy machinery and farm equipment across sub-Saharan Africa.

"All too often I think Africa is viewed as a single country and not a complicated continent. Every country is different," Mr. McCaw says.

Indeed, while mining continues with quiet deliberation in some sub-Saharan countries, the worldwide mining sector seems to have zeroed in with alarm on Tanzania, whose president John Magufuli signed new laws that increased the government's ownership requirements in mining projects and boosted royalties on gold and other minerals.

Investors who are serious about sub-Saharan Africa shouldn't focus on one sector, region or country, Mr. McCaw says.

"Diversification is important, so that any one event in one country will not have too much of an impact on the business if possible," he explains.

That kind of view helps keep investors in the region relatively calm. For the immediate future, they're holding their breath awaiting the next moves in Kenya, following the court's overturning of the election results.

The consensus among business people is that while the court ruling and repeat election may be uncomfortable and create uncertainty, in the long run the results might also be positive. The fact that both sides have agreed to go to the voters again helps confirm the rule of law in a part of the world not always known for respecting rules.

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