On your marks, get ready, Africa!

With falling world markets and a lack of prospects in the West, Africa is looking more and more like a place to do business.

Africa, with all its harrowing and chaotic history and its struggle against social unrest, is showing a resilience and sense of survival that we can marvel at.

The International Monetary Fund anticipates that emerging economies in general and Africa in particular will expand by 4.5% this year and 4.8% in 2013. An interesting indicator has been the value of residential properties, which, on average, it increased by 8% in 2011. (AFDB Statistics ) Economic growth is expected to continue despite recessionary trends in some parts of the world.

Although income disparities exist in Africa, a true middle class is evolving. It is estimated that sixty million African households have an annual income of more than $3,000 at market exchange rates. By 2015, that number is expected to reach 100 million.

Urbanization is driving demand for all types of real estate: offices, shopping complexes and, of course, homes. Growth and potential for infrastructure projects abound. This also has positive effects for work.

The South African business, it could be said, is in trouble. Resilient, known for its successful serial development of non-metropolitan shopping malls outside major urban hubs, recently expressed its dissatisfaction with local bureaucracy, revealing that it would spend more than R1 billion to build 10 shopping malls in Nigeria. The shopping malls, measuring 10,000 square meters and 15,000 square meters, will be built in the next three years in the capital Abuja and the city of Lagos, respectively, the main commercial hubs. Shoprite, the largest food retailer in Africa, will be the main tenant.

Wal-Mart-owned Massmart said last month it would invest in growing Africa and hoped to grow its food retail business from around R7 billion to around R20 billion over the next five years. But it is South African food retailers Shoprite and Pick n’ Pay’s whose sites are firmly established in Africa. Pick n Pay has increased its growth in Africa, using R1.4bn from the sale of Franklins in Australia.

Shoprite, which has only about 123 stores in Africa compared to about 1,730 locally, says another 174 stores will be added in Africa next year. Pick n’ Pay, on the other hand, aims to expand into Malawi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo within the course of the year. The food retailer has more than 93 stores in Africa, north of South Africa. Zambia and Zimbabwe are on the cards for expansion. Not to be outdone, Woolworth has opened 14 stores through its Business Development Program in Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, Mauritius, Tanzania and Mozambique. Woolworths currently has a presence in 12 countries with nearly 60 stores in Africa, excluding South Africa.

Additional investment in the African playing field could come in the form of purchases of South African food retailers by Tesco, Carrefour and Metro. Wal-Mart’s consumption of Massmart has already been well publicized.

Taking a slightly different tack, Don’t Waste Services (DWS), South Africa’s largest on-site waste management company, has announced its intention to open subsidiaries in Botswana, Kenya, Zambia, Mauritius and Swaziland. The company is active in the mining, retail, hospitality, healthcare and large industrial markets and currently provides waste minimization services to 300 corporate clients across its portfolio of sites. Having recently expanded into Mauritius, the company wants to replicate its successful model in other African countries.

On the property front, JHI Properties Zimbabwe has added a further 15 properties to its portfolio of more than 50 as it will manage the unlisted property investment fund, Ascendant Property Fund (APF). JHI has already expanded from its base of operations in South Africa to Zambia, Ghana, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Nigeria. This further expansion comes as Zimbabwe is experiencing exceptional growth in the retail market at a rate of around nine per cent more year on year. APF’s chief executive, Kura Chihota, anticipates that he will actively seek growth in Zimbabwe. “With Zimbabwe’s anticipated economic growth rate of nine percent per year, the outlook looks bright.” Chihota said recently.

JHI Properties was also appointed as the leasing agent for Joina City, a new luxury ‘urban city’ in Harare incorporating four floors of shops with 18 floors of offices. Anchor tenants include the big names in South Africa Spar and Edgars.

Taking us to Bigan. Bigan, who brought us the Mombela stadium in Nelspruit, the Olievehotbosch ministerial housing projects, the Oliver Tambo International Dock project and ESKOM’s coal haulage road repair, is negotiating partnerships with Ghanaian real estate companies to build affordable houses for people with medium and low income.

Ghana’s housing deficit stands at around 1.5 million units. Bigan believes he has the ability to deliver and help reduce Ghana’s housing deficit. Drawing on his experience in South Africa, Bigan’s Emmanuel Kere believes the company can “support not only the (housing) sector in Ghana, but also infrastructure development in general.”

Bigan claims to build 30,000 houses in South Africa annually and has a lot to offer Ghanaian companies. Bigen Africa President Dr. Iraj Abedian said the company was drawn to Ghana because of the country’s stable political environment and friendly business atmosphere. Bigan is unapologetic about his intention to use Ghana as a springboard to launch operations in Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

The South African government is also not exempt from taking an active role in the fight for Africa. The Public Investment Corporation (PIC), which manages over R1 trillion on behalf of civil servants, representing 10% of JSE SA’s market capitalization, is seeking potential private equity partners. 10% of the portfolio will be invested outside of South Africa, R50 billion is reserved for African investments. 60% of that, around R30 billion, will go to private equity according to PIC chief executive Elias Masilela in an interview with Reuters. The PIC is likely to be a player in infrastructure investments as countries on the continent build and renovate their roads, dams, hospitals and power plants, he said.

Standard Bank, which has a presence in 18 African countries, weighs in on the infrastructure. In an interview with Hugo Scott-Gall of Goldman Sachs, Sim Tshabalala, deputy chief executive of Standard Bank Group, said: “In most of sub-Saharan Africa, the infrastructure has nearly collapsed or is limited. It has to be rebuilt, for so there are huge opportunities in project financing A lot of infrastructure will be renewed, mainly with the support of the Brazilians and the Chinese The link we have with the ICBC (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China) also helps us to identify opportunities and execute them In our case, ICBC is a 20% shareholder.”

Standard Bank, as a South African player in the African market, has positioned itself well as an intermediary or conduit for other BRIC partners wishing to interact with the continent. Standard Bank has a cooperation agreement, for example, to identify Chinese corporations and SOEs (state-owned enterprises) that are looking for opportunities on the mainland.

Standard Bank has its work cut out for it as a broker for foreign capital, as Africa is estimated to need about $90 billion a year to meet its infrastructure backlog and is currently raising about $70 billion. This comes from a combination of sources: taxes, the banking system, and a large amount coming from abroad: venture capital. The banking system of individual African countries does not have the capacity to finance all the necessary infrastructure activities, so there will be a lot of reliance on international capital markets and the international banking system.

Standard Bank is not alone in its growing presence in Africa, ABSA has received regulatory approval to start a greenfield insurance business in Zambia, bringing to four the number of sub-Saharan countries where the Barclays-owned bank will have insurance operations. First National Bank (FNB) has revealed plans to invest almost R2bn over the next 12 months as the third largest bank in SA by number of clients, to expand its presence in SA and Africa. It is believed to be considering an acquisition in Nigeria and has sent scouting missions to Ghana. The bank, which operates in eight countries in Africa, including SA, has about 7 million clients in SA and 1.1 million in Africa. FNB Tanzania was its most recent addition, while its Zambia unit has already announced plans to have a nationwide branch network by 2016.

There is no doubt that some South African companies view Africa with a heightened sense of urgency. The financial problems of the European Union have revealed South Africa’s vulnerability to European problems. More than 25% of South Africa’s bilateral trade comes from the EU. If the GDP in Europe decreases, that indicates that fewer goods are being shipped from Africa. This does not bode well for South Africa. Expansion and investment in Africa can broaden South Africa’s horizons not to mention its vulnerability.

But in the words of Sim Tshabalala of Standard Bank: “As a South African, I would love to believe in the sustainability of the country’s national competitive advantage as an entry point to the African continent. Increasingly, people can go directly to Kenya and Nigeria.” , for example, bypassing South Africa, because these countries are building the necessary physical infrastructure and the required financial and legal infrastructure.”

So it looks like South Africa’s competitive advantage is waning as the rest of the continent develops. Meanwhile, many companies are seeing the gap and jumping into the fray. It seems that the future really is now.

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