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SA and Egypt lead picky foreign direct investors back into Africa
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SA and Egypt lead picky foreign direct investors back into Africa

The African investment roller-coaster shows just how hard it has been to make bets on the continent pay off.

After two years of declines, the region experienced growth in inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) in 2018, thanks to a revival of interest in SA and a more stable environment in Egypt.

Yet foreign interest has been fickle, underscoring the difficulties for policymakers to attract investors for the long haul. New York-based Blackstone Group is scaling back in Africa after less than five years. Bob Diamond, the former Barclays chief, is turning his attention elsewhere after six years’ struggle to get his banking venture off the ground.

“Oversized bets, misunderstandings about the scale and nature of customer demand in sub-Saharan African markets and too-high expectations have led to mistakes,” said William Attwell, head of sub-Saharan Africa research at DuckerFrontier in London, an adviser to multinational firms. “The opportunistic approach is an inadequate approach.”

Africa and developing economies in Asia were the only regions to attract more FDI in 2018, according to UN Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) estimates. With 54 countries spread over an area bigger than the US, China, India, parts of Europe and Japan combined, trends are never uniform. Nigeria, which vies with SA as the region’s biggest economy, has had FDI declines for three consecutive years, due to endemic corruption, unpredictable policies, lower oil prices, and deep-seated poverty.

Estimated inflows of $40bn in 2018 are a fraction of the $1.19 trillion that moved globally, creating a gap for those willing to navigate challenges from regime changes and poor tax collection to foreign-exchange and skills shortages. Some flows to the continent may have been hampered by the collapse of Abraaj Group, once among the most influential emerging-market buyout firms. The Dubai-based company ran a near-$1bn sub-Saharan Africa fund and investors are now seeking a new manager.

Washington-based Carlyle Group, which closed its $700m sub-Saharan fund in 2014, is still doing deals on the continent even after being scorched by a Nigerian bank purchase, recently investing $40m in online travel agency Wakanow.com. That’s a different approach to its New York-based rival Blackstone, which blanked out Africa in slides showing its global footprint at a September presentation.

Paris-based Societe Generale, which has operations in 19 African countries, has ambitions to double its share of revenue from the region to 10%. Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday that he is “very bullish” about Africa, especially in consumer financing. He intends to push the management of his Sarwa Capital unit to expand to provide loans to individuals and small-business owners on the rest of the continent.

Asked about the political risk in Africa, the Orascom Investment Holding chair said: “Right now, if you compare them with the European mess or the American situation, Africa is in pretty good shape.”

Renault is considering an assembly plant in Ghana, joining Volkswagen and China’s Sinotruk International. The country overtook Nigeria, an economy six times its size, in 2018 as the largest recipient of FDI in West Africa. Mercedes-Benz will invest €600m expanding its SA plant, while Dubai-based DP World is still looking at the continent even after having its stake in a port in Djibouti nationalised.

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