October Idea of the Month: Africa

By Travis Johnson, Stock Gumshoe, October 16, 2009

The idea that we’re finally going to enter an era of just and profitable growth in Africa (or at least, sustainable growth) has been around for a long time, and it’s been wrong for a long time, as Africa has arguably been subject to more exploitation, poverty, and human suffering than your average continent over these past hundred years, along with enough war, famine, pestilence, and natural disasters to drive thousands of companies into the ground.

But Africa is also, again arguably, one of the great untapped stores of human and natural wealth in the world — the last 20 years has seen cell phones creep into most towns across the continent, and there are inklings of modern agriculture and mining being developed, along with other economic “miracles” and engines churning in places … and Africa does have, of course, a vast diversity — there are plenty of millionaires and glittering city skylines to go with the image of dustbowl poverty. And we certainly know that the Chinese are trying very hard to make friends with nearly all of Africa, mimicking their colonial forebears as they turn a blind eye to genocide in order to secure access to the natural resources they need (not that they’re even close to being alone in that regard).

The continent, however, should you choose to see a bright future there, is hard to invest in — which makes it doubly tantalizing for many investors, of course. There should be room for massive growth — anecdotal evidence abounds that Africa has to see decades of sustainable economic growth at some point … agriculture could easily increase production by 5-10% a year with just a modicum of modern technology, and the “artisanal” miners of the Congo or Mozambique, who drag copper ore from hand-hewn pits, clearly do not represent the best and most efficient use of human skill and energy. But outside of a small number of great big multinational companies, many of which are based either in South Africa or the mediterranean states, bookending dozens of countries that most American’s couldn’t find on the map, the continent is almost a closed book to investors who are looking for a focused bet on African growth.

So let’s find some good African investments, shall we?

My favorite is very small, and very hard to buy in any volume unless you can trade in London ...

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