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Africa: a walk on the wild side for investors

For all the economic and political risk, signs of growth flicker in some parts of the continent

From vast expanses of desert, to sub-Saharan savannah teeming with wildlife, to market traders in Marrakesh, perceptions of Africa are shaped by any number of images. Sadly, though, the most startling and enduring pictures are those of war or famine.

A litany of factors including corrupt governments, economic collapse, natural disasters and a hangover from the colonial era mean Africa is firmly entrenched as the world's poorest continent. Figures published by the United Nations in 2003 showed that the 25 most under-developed countries were all African.

The fortunes of the continent have been thrown into sharp relief by Asia's drive out of the financial wilderness. The "tiger" economies of Korea and Taiwan led the way in the 1970s and have been joined in recent years by the rapidly growing powerhouses of China and India.

As a disparate band of countries - from the democratic and increasingly prosperous South Africa to the repressive regime and economic basketcase of Zimbabwe - struggle to stand on their own feet, Africa has become, for too many Britons, a home simply for charitable donations, highlighted by campaigns such as Live8.

International development might seem far removed from people wondering what to do with their annual £7,000 individual savings account (ISA) allowance. Few of us would think of Africa as a good place to invest.

But for those prepared to take a risk with a small part of their portfolio, there are signs the continent's fortunes are starting to change. The latest figures from the World Bank show 16 African countries have managed to sustain annual growth rates of more than 4.5 per cent since the mid-1990s.

The World Bank also reports that inflation and government deficits on the continent are both falling. Together, these translate into the potential for a stable home for your cash.

Jonathan Asante, a specialist in under-developed markets at fund manager First State, argues that there is now a consensus in Africa about how to build a successful economy based on free markets and the rule of law. Once this structure is implemented properly, he stresses, African nations could generate tremendous and rapid growth.

Even if a country is run half as well as it could be, the potential growth in asset prices, the economy and people's wealth is huge, he explains. Africa is the "last emerging market".

Other signs suggest the continent is broadening its appeal to overseas investors, with an emerging African middle class holding a lot of promise for consumer industries. In some countries, the anticipated growth in mobile phones is huge.

Mr Asante says that Ghana, run by a democratic and reformist government, has a great deal of potential, as does oil-rich Nigeria.

"The beneficiaries of an expanding middle class could be companies such as the Standard Bank of South Africa or shopping chains such as ShopRite and Woolworths," he adds.

Despite these promising indicators, there are plenty of caveats for investors. One is that a lot of Africa's wealth stems from its great stocks of minerals and precious metals, as well as oil and coal.

Over the past two years, prices for commodities including copper, gas, gold and oil have been at vertiginous levels and many City analysts worry that they could plummet. That, however, hasn't stopped Jamie Allsopp, who runs the New Star Hidden Value fund. Although this is focused on the UK, he has 7 per cent of his portfolio invested in African mining firms - attracted by mineral deposits including copper in the Congo and gold in South Africa and Botswana.

"Many of the companies, such as Ridge Mining and Central African Mining, list their shares in the UK," he says. "I want to be exposed to African growth as it's one of the most interesting parts of the market at the moment."

Other big African-based firms with a London listing include drinks giant SABMiller and fund manager Old Mutual.

However, many countries on the continent have a history of political unrest, and economic instability can increase the chances of further coups and civil wars.

On top of this, the small size of the financial markets means that investors, whether individuals or institutions, can find it hard to sell holdings if markets turn downwards in a crisis.

So how to invest? First, it's not easy to find a fund. Ones dedicated to backing African companies or stock market indices - and most African states with an index list only a handful of businesses - are rare. A small number now offer exposure, though this is limited.

The Investec Pan-Africa fund is one option but it's based in Guernsey, which can make it more expensive, and administratively difficult, to invest in.

An alternative is a global "emerging markets" fund. Among those tipped by financial advisers are Lazard Emerging Markets and Aberdeen Global Emerging Markets.

For a lower-risk option, try a global bond fund such as Newton Global Dynamic, which invests in debt issued by South African companies and the government.

Financial advisers usually recommend that no more than 5 per cent of any portfolio is invested in such a high-risk area.

Tim Sharp writes for 'New Model Adviser' magazine, published by Citywire