Against the backdrop of less than stellar growth in developed markets and the plateau effect now taking hold in some of the more active emerging markets, such as Brazil and China, it has been no surprise to see Africa featured more frequently in the conversations of private equity professionals.
Developed markets cannot be relied upon to continue producing the level of returns the private equity industry has been used to and that is demanded by investors today. With strong economic growth, large deposits of natural resources and a burgeoning middle class, Africa is the emerging market that everyone wants a piece of, with sub-Saharan Africa and Nigeria in particular at the center of the attention. Nigeria is Africa's No. 1 oil producer and has the largest population in the continent by some distance. Living standards are rising dramatically, and with a well-educated workforce and the return of well-connected local talent to Africa's shores, the region is ripe for dealmaking.
Many Nigerian professionals who have been educated in the U.K. or U.S. are returning to Africa with their contacts, education and their values in order to create new work. The nascent private equity industry in Nigeria has shifted into something of a dual market, with those formerly working with leading investment banks and private equity houses in Europe or America alongside the indigenous players. The Nigerian individuals leading the charge, who perhaps studied at the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge and trained with a Magic Circle law firm, are now returning home with deep expertise and are finding themselves in high demand as global private equity houses and international investment banks look to make inroads into the market. Such individuals are now typically founding partners in private equity firms, setting up and sourcing deals and acting as a touch point for work in the region.
A survey by the Emerging Markets Private Equity Association, released earlier this year, showed international investors have found that sub-Saharan Africa became a more attractive investment location in 2011, rising to fifth place from seventh in the survey.
With the International Monetary Fund continuing to forecast growth in the Nigerian economy at 7%-plus for 2012, albeit before slipping to 6.6% in 2013, the economy is clearly in the midst of a strong upswing, and opportunities are most prevalent in the natural resources and consumer sectors.
Issues regarding potential corruption, however, and managing risk in natural resources and infrastructure projects, where governments tend to be very closely involved, have lent more weight to consumer-related opportunities. It is much easier to engage in deals within the consumer sector to standards that sponsors and investors are more comfortable with, while the growing middle class and rising incomes provide further backing to consumer-led investment.
Private equity powerhouse Carlyle Group has featured strongly in Africa as the first global group to raise an Africa fund with plans to pull in some $500 million. Helios Investment Partners, Emerging Capital Partners and Standard Chartered plc are other names connected with the region. Consumer-related businesses are currently more suited to these groups, rather than investing over the longer time frame required with natural resources or mineral extraction.
Regardless of the market segment, the risk of corruption remains one of the biggest obstacles to successful dealmaking. Performing thorough due diligence to know exactly whom you are doing business with is essential, and it is here that the value of good contacts cannot be overemphasized. Also regularly cited as a hurdle to growth in Africa is the absence of basic infrastructure in these countries, which makes it difficult for goods to be transported in and out of the continent efficiently.
Exits, which can take time even in the U.S. and Europe, need to be carefully constructed in Africa. Initial public offerings are less of an option due to the absence of developed capital markets, which makes trade sales much more realistic. It is potentially more difficult to engineer an exit in Africa, as clearly firms need to find the right team that can pay the sum required, although the range of options is likely to increase in the future. Valuations are key, which also demonstrates the importance of having good contacts on the ground that fully understand and appreciate this rapidly developing market and its potential.
Caroline Williams is partner in the global investment funds and global corporate groups for the Walkers Group, based in the Cayman Islands office.