Should you invest in Africa's future?Africa has long been trailed as the ultimate long-term, speculative investment. As the troubled continent finally fixes its endemic economic problems and develops, profits should start to flow and stock markets rise.
That argument is now rapidly gaining ground – and more investment opportunities are opening up for British investors.
There was evidence this month of the interest in Africa, despite the recent political and social unrest. Fund managers and analysts from around the globe flocked to Cape Town to attend the 2013 Investing in African Mining Indaba – the world's largest mining investment event.
Mining and natural resources, however, are merely one component of the investment story of a continent where more than a thousand languages are spoken, and to climates ranging from hot deserts to frozen glaciers.
Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group, said: "It is positive that the much publicised calls to nationalise mines in South Africa have finally been dispelled, but the economic growth drivers in Africa are as diverse as information technology, solar electricity, beer and cut flowers. We are also interested in industries and sectors tied to the rising power of the consumer, like banking services, telecommunications, food and beverages."
Mr Mobius, whose Templeton Africa Fund, launched in May 2012, had produced a return of 14pc by the year end, points out that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has projected that 10 of the 20 fastest-growing economies during the next five years will be in sub-Saharan Africa and two will be in north Africa.
Nigeria, where average income per capita has quadrupled since 2000, is becoming particularly popular with specialist fund managers after consistent annual growth rates of around 7pc. Other countries with growth potential include Sierra Leone, which grew more than 20pc last year, Ghana and Kenya.
Emily Whiting, the client portfolio manager for the emerging markets equity team at JP Morgan Asset Management – whose Africa Equity fund has produced a return of 60pc since launch in May 2008 – said: "Over a period of at least the next five years, I would expect specialist African funds to outperform more general global and emerging market funds as we are seeing the same fundamental developments that we saw in the more developed emerging market economies in the Eighties and Nineties.
"Growth is from a very low base, the private sector is becoming a broader part of the economy and financial markets are opening up."
Investors keen to buy into the African story now have a range of options, although some of these involve venturing outside the security of UK regulation. The specialist African funds offered by Templeton, JP Morgan and Investec are Luxembourg-domiciled but those offered by Neptune and JM Finn & Co are UK-based.
Tellingly, however, it is hard to find financial advisers who recommend any of these funds, and their main reservation is not so much where they are based but the fact that African markets are notoriously illiquid. The 2009 closure of New Star's Heart of Africa fund only 15 months after its launch is commonly flagged up as a health warning in this respect.
Philippa Gee, the managing director of Philippa Gee Wealth Management, the financial adviser, said: "Africa is a completely different ball game to other investment regions and is only suitable, in my opinion, for sophisticated investors, not mainstream retail investors.
"Too often people quote the potential, saying you could make 50pc, but bear in mind that you have the potential to lose far more than that, and for most investors that is a step too far."
Most financial advisers recommend that anyone determined to gain exposure to Africa should take a more diluted approach, investing in more broadly based global or emerging market funds that can take advantage of opportunities in the area as and when they see fit without being locked in. These rarely offer an exposure of more than a few per cent, but some go higher.
For example, the First State Global Emerging Market Leaders Fund is 17pc invested in Africa and the BlackRock Frontiers Investment Trust is 24pc invested there. The Truestone Global Impact Fund, which is 21pc invested in the continent, also provides an interesting ethical alternative.
But such holdings are not substantial enough to satisfy everyone, so Emerging Europe Middle East and Africa (EMEA) funds offered by the likes of Fidelity and JP Morgan can be worth considering as halfway houses.
The UK-based Fidelity EMEA Fund, which is around two-thirds invested in Africa, has produced a return of 42pc since launch in February 2008, and Mark Livingston, investment director for emerging markets at Fidelity, is adamant that the achievement "has all been about liquidity" – the ability to buy and sell investments when you want to.
He said: "Africa is a great story and I wouldn't be surprised if it beat Asia in terms of economic growth over the next five years. But liquidity will always be an issue if you are 100pc invested there, and if you go for global emerging market funds instead, you won't actually be invested enough there to benefit."