Getting the news: According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa has been the region with the highest number of reforms each year since 2012. Picture: REUTERS
Getting the news: According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa has been the region with the highest number of reforms each year since 2012. Picture: REUTERS

As investors we are all aware of the need to diversify our exposure. Diversification reduces the volatility of our investment returns and has the benefit of not putting all your eggs in one basket. It is for this reason that the prudential limits for South African investors allow offshore investments of 30% within a pension fund (or other product managed under Regulation 28) with an additional 10% allowance for Africa excluding SA.

There are many misconceptions about Africa and African investing. One of the common remarks we hear when introducing Africa to potential investors is: “I know, this is a high-risk investment with a high potential return.”

Yet if we use the MSCI Index for Africa excluding SA and compare the returns and volatility of this index to a range of other global indices, this is simply not true. Over the long term, African equity markets (excluding SA) have outperformed developed, emerging and frontier markets and the S&P 500 Index. In addition, the volatility of these returns has been similar to those for developed markets and less than that those of emerging markets as a whole and the JSE.

Over the three months to the end of October 2018, the JSE declined 8.8% compared to -1.3% in Africa excluding SA and -2% for the MSCI emerging markets index (all returns in rand). Having exposure to Africa would thus have reduced your declines in the period.

Of course, no-one would invest in Africa, or any asset for that matter, based on historic returns, even though African returns have been good. Investors need to believe that the continent has improving economic growth, better business environments and more stable politics.

This is another area where misconceptions arise. The news pertaining to Africa typically focuses on the worst issues and incidents that occur on the continent. A foreigner whose main source of information is the news media would conclude that the continent is characterised by violence, political instability and weak governance.

However, on the ground and across the continent, growth is continuing and infrastructure and business conditions are improving. As investors who travel across Africa regularly, we observe these trends first hand, but these are also clear from surveys and economic measures.

We have seen some recent data releases that confirm our thesis for Africa (excluding SA) as a long-term investment destination. As we have said before, the economies on the continent are transforming and it is this transformation that is driving a large portion of the growth. While global growth and higher commodity prices are supportive factors for these economies, they are not a requirement.

The IMF released its latest world economic outlook report in October 2018. Despite some downgrades to global growth, the outlook for African economies remains largely unchanged. 

An even more important release is the World Bank’s Doing Business 2019 report. We use the ease of doing business score, which allows us to assess the level of improvement in the ease of doing business over time.

Our observations of improvements on the ground are backed up by the World Bank’s detailed analysis, which uses 11 indicator sets to measure aspects of business regulation that matter for entrepreneurship. The business environment for Africa (excluding SA) has on aggregate continued to improve in line with the trend experienced earlier in the century.

According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa has been the region with the highest number of reforms each year since 2012. More than a third of the reforms captured across the globe in the latest release were from 40 economies in sub-Saharan Africa.

As an example, the average time to register a business in the region has declined from 59 days in 2006 to 23 days. They identified 10 economies with the most notable improvements in their latest survey and the list included five African countries, namely Djibouti, Togo, Kenya, and Rwanda. Kenya jumped 20 positions to be ranked 61st in the world, while Rwanda gained 11 places and is now ranked 29th, ahead of Spain, Russia and France.

In the World Bank’s view, Mauritius is the easiest place to do business on the continent and is ranked 20th out of 190 countries, ahead of countries such as Canada, Ireland and Germany. SA, which is ranked 82nd in the world for doing business, is the sixth best on the continent (it was second on the continent in 2013 but has fallen 42 places in the global rankings while the rest of Africa has generally improved by about three places).

It is evident that there is great potential in Africa, and we believe investors can access this growth through equity investments in domestic African companies that will not only benefit from the anticipated growth, but also from improving infrastructure and business environments as well as better political governance.

Investing in African equity markets can decrease the volatility of a portfolio, even in difficult market periods, and provide significant diversification benefits while generating good returns. Investors should invest a portion of their portfolios over the medium to longer term in African equities to benefit from this strongly growing region.

 Clark is Africa fund manager at Ashburton Investments.