In the words of Roelof Horne, Frontier Portfolio Manager for Investec Asset Management, when it comes to the news media and the African continent, “we tend to focus on the negative stories where things do not go as hoped.” Not so at Investec, where the South African born and bred specialist banking and asset manager continues to work toward firming up investment products and options throughout the continent of Africa. Here is how the institution has already begun to do so, why Africa ought to be on everyone’s investment agenda today and what the next two or three decades will bring for this, arguably the final block of frontier investment countries.

TABJ: Roelof, with more than 50 per cent of Investec Asset Management’s total investments situated in the African continent, perhaps we can have a look at how and when this began, and how healthy this is today?
RH: The asset management business within Investec launched in 1991 and was a South Africa focused business at the time. In 1996, we expanded that into the neighbouring countries to South Africa—Namibia and Botswana—and in 2004 we decided to launch our Africa continent-wide products, put together an investment team, and launch our Africa Continent Investment Strategy in 2005. The African Continent business has only been going for about five years and is therefore still in its infancy. These mandates cover the whole African continent. In other words, we have the ability to invest anywhere in the continent that we choose. We have about US$1.3 billion of assets in this space. The other US$30-plus billion assets that we manage in the African continent are country-specific, namely South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

TABJ: Let’s look at the different investment styles within this business arm. Where will this go and what potential exists for anyone looking at investing there today?
RH: We manage a wide variety of asset classes, from cash management to fixed interest, credit, equities, to hedge funds. We describe ourselves as a multi-asset, multi-team boutique asset manager. For example, we run a number of investment styles within the equity space. We have different portfolio managers that specialize in growth equities, value equities and absolute return—something which is not common in asset management houses.

In the Frontier Markets team, we invest in African public equity as well as private equity. We have investors from across the world, in  South Africa, other parts of Africa, Europe, the United States, the Middle East and the Far East, representing everything from retail investors to high net worth individuals and family offices, institutions and endowments. Whereas we currently invest in Pan-African equity and fixed interest securities, we plan to have a fund that can invest in a full range of asset classes across the continent where we can offer international investors a multi-asset fund, also investing in asset classes such as agriculture, infrastructure and property. We’ve been building our investment team quite aggressively since we started this African continent product five years ago and we are adding specialists and extending our investment reach. We are quite ambitious in our African strategy. We see Africa as a very promising investment destination and probably the last block of frontier investment countries. We expect very significant economic growth in these markets over the next 20 years and we see this growth as sustainable. We think that Africa’s rate of development will surprise most people and that we are not only going to see significant GDP growth, but also significant investment in infrastructure. It will lead to a rapid increase in GDP per capita, and the growth of an African middle class that will actually change the face of the continent over the next decade or so.

TABJ: Looking more closely at foreign investment in the Africa space today, China is probably a good place to start with when it comes to honing in on deals coming through. What are your thoughts on Chinese investment in Africa today, what it will mean for Africa (broadly) in the long-term and what it might signal in terms of market growth in Africa?
RH: China’s investment in Africa is a relatively new phenomenon. I think that it is something that could be hugely positive for Africa so long as it is approached wisely.  The bi-lateral investment deals are negotiated individually and how positive an investment deal will be for a specific country or region depends on, of course, how well thought out the projects would be, as well as the terms of the deal—what these countries will receive and what they will have to deliver in return. I have no doubt that down the line we will look back and say that some of the investment deals or bilateral deals between China and Africa were bad for the countries involved. Some deals will be neutral and some of them will be very good. In general what we are seeing is that China is interested in mainly two things, including access to basic materials, like energy, metals and agricultural products. The second is business opportunities for Chinese companies.  In return, they offer countries help with financing, mostly for infrastructure projects. This could be in physical terms such as constructing a railway or upgrading a harbour, or giving low rate interest loans for that purpose. Infrastructure is something that is lagging in Africa. It started with a deficit and has not kept pace with the very rapid growth we have seen in the economies of Africa since 2001. The deficit is huge and the limited infrastructure is really creaking under the strain of the vibrant economic activity. It causes bottlenecks, holding back what could be an economic growth on par with what we are seeing in China and India today. The obvious deficits are in electricity, harbour capacity, and road and rail infrastructure.

TABJ: Let’s talk political development and stability. Clearly this reflects directly on the health of investment opportunities in all ways. Perhaps you can highlight some of the key aspects throughout (or regionally specific) for the continent of Africa today?
RH: If you focus on the day-to-day news items in Africa, it is very easy to get caught up in the stories of the day. Humans being what they are, we tend to focus on the negative stories where things do not go as you hoped, such as the coup in country X or the stolen election in country Y or the post-election violence in country Z. As a result, we easily lose sight of the tremendous positive change there has been in Africa.  If you step back and look at progress over the last 15 years and look at the continent as a whole, the progress is obvious.  In the 1980s, we had virtually no democratic elections in Africa. Most of the countries in Africa were one party states or ruled by dictators. That was the norm. That was Africa. These days, in most African countries, we have democratic, multi-party elections. A lot of these elections are far from perfect, but it is still a major improvement on where we were only 15 or 20 years ago. The fact that we have democratic elections is very meaningful and has made a significant difference to how political parties and governments behave in Africa. A lot of the improvement that we see in sovereign governance, in transparency in government affairs, in investment into infrastructure and social services, is because governments have to answer to an electorate. Governments and political parties that want to stay in power know they have to deliver in order to do that.

TABJ: In what appears to be a carry-on or new era of your 2005 Africa Continent Investment Strategy, I see that you recently launched a new investment fund, the Investec Africa Opportunity Fund, aimed at high net-worth UK investors. Let’s look at this latest move and what it highlights in part for Investec’s strategic goals today.
RH: We’ve been running our Africa fund for the past five years. One of the problems with most of the equity markets in Africa is that they are quite illiquid. Our previous funds were aimed at institutional investors. We simply didn’t want to get into a situation where liquidity may become a problem in stressful times. In 2008, we partly bridged that gap by launching an African and Middle East fund that is available to UK retail investors and we have now decided to launch a liquid Africa fund that will be available to European and UK retail investors. We are pleased we have solved the liquidity problem and can offer an Africa product to the retail market.

TABJ: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Roelof. Do you have any closing messages for our readers looking at Investec today?
RH:  We are a company that was born and bred in Africa. We have a very large business base in Africa and our future in inextricably linked with Africa. We think that Africa is going to be the continent that will occupy a lot of the headlines (in a positive sense) over the next two or three decades and we are putting resources to work to ensure we can offer our clients exposure to what we feel will be the next exciting global growth story.