West Africa Rising: World Bank predicts more rapid growth

While the US limps back from its downturn at an economic growth rate of 3.0, World Bank officials expect the 47 countries south of the Sahara to cruise at a an average of 5.3 percent growth this year.

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

The world's poorest continent is getting richer, and you could almost smell it in the numbers read out by World Bank functionaries starring in a videoconference in Dakar, Senegal last week.

While the US limps back from its downturn at a economic growth rate of 3 percent, World Bank officials expect the 47 countries south of the Sahara to cruise at a respectable 5.3 percent growth this year – or 6.5, if you exclude South Africa and its sporadic strikes.

And even that appears as a pittance contrasted to an emerging celebrity-state like Ghana, whose economy – set to expand by 13.4 percent in 2011 – is now the fasting growing one on the continent.

Within West Africa, the land of Kente cloth and King's Bite cocoa is followed by Nigeria, where the World Bank predicts 7 percent growth over the next 12 months. And while the bank didn't put out numbers for Liberia, the International Monetary Fund projects that economy to grow by 9 percent between now and New Year's.

That's the kind of boom that "represents serious inroads against poverty," the IMF's deputy director for Africa, Mark Plant, told me over post-press conference pastries last year.

And it's happening – but not everywhere. And not for everyone.

Welcome to West Africa Rising, a weekly Africa Monitor column that looks every Tuesday at business, investment, and development trends in the region.

Sure, the 250 million denizens of Africa's western bulge live in the most heavily peace-kept region of the world. But the fast food chains of Lagos or the docks at Dakar Port tell a different story, one that goes beyond the typical world media's emphasis on African conflict.

Wal-Mart, KFC expand into Africa

Consider what the continent offers America: New markets, new allies, a new boom to be a part of.

Start with Wal-Mart, which early last month became the biggest retailer on this continent of street vendors and fish stalls. Or watch KFC, which plans to sizzle its original recipe out of 1,200 Africa chains by 2014 – and double its Africa revenue in the process. Even American universities are boosting by 20 percent a year their own peculiar Africa-bound export: Study abroad students, 13,000 of whom backpacked through the continent last year.

Then there's the geopolitics: In an epoch when China has supplanted the Soviet Union as the compelling model of how to transmogrify a rural backwater into a new millennium hyper-power, World Bank attachés can point to Ghana as a flag-bearer for the Bretton Woods consensus.

So, in-between reports on how the UN negotiates a hopefully peaceful resolution to Ivory Coast's emergency, don't lose sight of the full picture: The next decade could be the one when West Africa rescues the West.

Check in each Tuesday as we take a look at the trends in one of the world's last investment frontiers.

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