Africa's economic boom: Five countries to watch

South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Ghana, and Ethiopia all have economies that are growing at a brisk pace. But their future depends on how they invest that money, writes Matthew Hawkins.

Andy Nelson/staff
Soccer players practice under the skyline of Gaborone, Botswana. The nation has seen a boom in construction fueled by diamond wealth and foreign investment.

A version of this post originally appeared on the blog, Africa on the Blog. The views expressed are the author's own.

As competition for raw resources heats up globally, economic and political elites in the West are turning to Africa for quick and generous capital gains and for the promotion of British and American geostrategic interests.

This is not the first time that these elites have been optimistic about Africa – about a decade and a half ago “Africa experts” boosted new “progressive-minded” leaders, who were said to represent political reform, more grassroots participation in government, more transparent economic policies, and an end to tribal favoritism and conflicts.

Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia, Isaias Afewerki in Eritrea, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and Paul Kagame in Rwanda were symbols of this new leadership. It didn’t take long, however, before more tribal conflicts followed and persistent charges of corruption seemed to dash hopes for economic reform.

The problems facing Africa were compounded by the way HIV ravaged the continent, cutting down many men and women in the prime of their lives. Much of the media in the West questioned whether or not Africa would ever be able to recover.

By 2000 the Economist described Africa on its cover as being “The Hopeless Continent." 

That was then.

Now, coverage of Africa promises a bright new future while noting that there are still a number of difficulties that African nations have to overcome. Population projections show that in the next 25 years Africa will more than recover its population losses from the '80s and '90s. At the same time, investment companies see Africa as having some of the world’s most promising opportunities for sharp economic growth.

Who's leading the charge?

T. Rowe Price’s “Global Connections” identifies what it believes are the five most promising countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to take advantage of that potential economic growth.

There is, of course, South Africa, which is the leading economy on the continent. Price says that South Africa plays the role of the continent’s economic powerhouse, by providing the continent's other countries with goods and services, as well as investments. Price says that South Africa has a stake in seeing the standard of living rise in its potential trading partners and that this will continue to stimulate economic growth in the continent.

Then there is Nigeria, which Price describes as benefiting from a large population base and from the petroleum export business. Nigeria is consolidating political reform, as exemplified by two peaceful transfers of power within the past decade. Nigeria also has demonstrated its prowess in mobile telecommunications technology. Price points out, however, that the Nigerian economy is still hobbled by its political patronage system, and that the economy has not sufficiently diversified.

A third country investors have their eye on is Angola, which is growing rapidly due to oil exports. Price reports that Angola’s economy is vulnerable because it lacks diversity, but for the time being it is rapidly expanding its infrastructure as part of a controversial “infrastructure for oil” trade agreement with China, which critics believe benefits the Chinese more than the Angolans.

A fourth promising country in Africa is Ghana. Price reports that Ghana is “one of the fastest growing economies in the world.” Ghana’s economic growth is based primarily on its oil production, but Price says that political and economic reforms that were in place nearly two decades before oil was discovered in 2007, play a major role in the country’s long-term economic prospects and sustainability, even though Ghana’s rate of growth will not remain at its current astronomical levels.

Price reports that Ethiopia is yet another country with a promising future. Ethiopia represents a huge market that can drive economic growth and integration in the Horn of Africa region. Ethiopia’s economic growth has been fueled by hydroelectric power, which enables it to export electricity to neighboring countries. Price says that Ethiopia has also benefited from large-scale government investment in agriculture, industrialization, and infrastructure.

Much of the promising economic news coming out of Africa reflects rising commodity prices. The continent can also expect to capitalize on having a comparatively young demographic structure, as the growth 16 to 30 age bracket provides the potential for an expanded workforce. This is also the demographic that will rapidly adopt mobile technology, which is likely to increase both markets and productivity on the continent.

With sharp and rapid growth, however, there is greater economic disparity. While global demand for Africa’s natural resources will continue to attract investors, the growing gap between the rich and the poor could trigger social and political instability in the future if countries do not take measures to reduce economic disparity so that more people will benefit from the growth of national and regional economies.

African nations should also be careful to direct a sizable portion of the surplus from this growth into infrastructure and economic diversity, so that nations will not be dependent on high commodity prices to sustain a higher standard of living over the long-term.

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