Addis Fortune (Addis Ababa)

Africa's Rise - Not a Myth Anymore

Not since the countries of Africa tossed out their colonial masters several decades ago has there been this much optimism and excitement about the continent's prospects.

While China's economic expansion has slowed, and Europe and the United States try to dig themselves out of a recession, Africa has not only weathered an up-and-down global economy - it has been booming. Real gains are finally being made on the ground in Africa today - ones that speak to the possibility of a breakout phase that would lift millions out of utter poverty and great misery.

Let us start with the numbers. According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) data, Sub-Saharan Africa has grown at an annual rate of 4.8pc over the last five years - a period that includes the trauma of the global financial crisis. That means it has outperformed other developing regions and it blows out of the water the advanced economies, which expanded just 0.5pc per year.

This is happening on a continent that has been riddled for decades with the worst levels of malnutrition, ravaged by preventable and treatable diseases, beset by corruption and rent-seeking and scarred by a legacy of foregone opportunities. It is also occurring on a continent thought to be deeply vulnerable to negative external shocks, internal political upheavals, and now, sadly, terrorist movements.

No wonder there is so much excitement. Even the most discriminating investors are paying greater attention to Africa, which is all the more remarkable given that for decades the place was deemed virtually uninvestable.

Now, from bonds to private equity, new vehicles are emerging to channel foreign investments into more of the most promising African economies.

How real is the boom?

Foreign direct investment in sub-Saharan Africa has leapt up, from six billion dollars in 2000 to 34 billion dollars in 2012. In just the past couple of years, several African countries have issued external debt for the first time, allowing them to invest in their future.

Cynics might say that they have seen this all before; that ten years ago, another great wave of anticipation aboutAfrica's development merely gave way to more disappointment. And yes, some things fizzled out; in some instances, countries were even left worse off.

We should be cautious, then, in saying that things are sure to be different this time around. Yet, if one looks closely, a cause for hope is on solid analytical soil.

Africa's traditional growth story was built on rising prices for international commodities. But this proved neither sustainable nor inclusive, encouraging corruption and an unproductive rent-seeking mentality among the ruling elite. There is a reason we think ofAfricawhen we think of the resource curse.

This time, however, an expanding set of small and medium-sized enterprises are bringing real economic diversification. According to World Bank (WB) statistics, these firms add some 20pc to the continent's gross domestic product (GDP) and contribute roughly 50pc of the new jobs in sub-SaharanAfrica. These successful businesses are giving rise to internationally competitive companies, thereby providing access to global markets, new business models and technologies and higher wages and salaries.

This can have a multiplier effect on the long-term productivity of both labour and capital. As we have seen in Brazil and Mexico - and now in some African nations - it slows brain drain by providing greater opportunities at home; it encourages nationals to migrate back home and it engages the Diaspora in enhancing the flow of capital and opening up new cross-border interactions. The ultimate benefit of all this, of course, is the promise of sustaining and nurturing wider prosperity.

This business boom is not just an isolated development limited to a few outlier countries. If these dynamics accelerate and attain critical mass in several major African economies, as I believe they will, the regional and global effects could be consequential. But there's still a lot to be done.

Right now, it is still cheaper (and easier) to export something to another African country via Europe orDubaithan directly. Clearly, regional trade suffers as a result. And though capital flows to Africa have picked up, they continue to be well below what economists would expect given principles of comparative advantage, consumption and production patterns, as well as, of course, per capita income.

There are other pressing needs too.Africacannot hope to really compete on the global economic front lines until it has broader electrification and a better transportation system. Unlike in decades past, however, the major driver needs to be the private sector, not some politician at a regional summit offering grandiose and unreasonable plans, or a celebrity do-gooder organising a concert.

For the developed world,Africa's rise is not about charity or even just improving the livelihoods of the millions who live on the margins of subsistence. A growing, more prosperousAfricawould assist the much-sought-after global rebalancing, helping the world find a less volatile economic equilibrium. A risingAfricawould eventually provide a long-term source of global aggregate demand and a destination to engage foreign capital that is now overheating a smaller set of developing economies.

All this sounds very appealing, and it is. It is also far from automatic.Africa's rise can still be derailed by internal obstacles, especially the lack of adequate institutions in the public sector.

Badly managed ministries and funding processes can contaminate development, especially if, rather than responding to people's needs, they allow for a concentration of power that not only enables corruption, but too raises the incentive for the existing political order to block any changes to the system, no matter how beneficial for the common good. It is no surprise then that African countries, on average, score in the bottom third of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

It is the responsibility of Africans to recognise and address these risks. Yet the rest of the world can play a role in ensuring that this time,Africa's rise will be real and sustainable.

The continent needs infrastructure projects, it needs risk mitigation and it needs public-private partnerships (PPPs) that help build small and midsize businesses. What it does not need is a mindset that eternally treatsAfricaas an aid recipient. But most importantly, the West needs to get its own house in order to prevent currency wars or another recession that could imperil global capital flows.

Count me among the growing number of people excited and hopeful about what is happening on the ground inAfrica. Markets are booming, and this time it is not just gold mines and oil rigs; it is a new generation of workers and entrepreneurs.

Still a cynic? Don't take my word for it - just follow the money.

Mohamed El-Erian Is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-Chief Investment Officer of Pimco - a Global Investment Management Firm. This Commentary First Appeared On African Investor.

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