Can Africa keep its economic winning streak alive?

Bill Clinton spoke with Aliko Dangote (right), CEO of Dangote Group, and Jeff Immelt, the head of General Electric (left) after a panel discussion at the US-Africa Business Forum.
Bill Clinton spoke with Aliko Dangote (right), CEO of Dangote Group, and Jeff Immelt, the head of General Electric (left) after a panel discussion at the US-Africa Business Forum.

WASHINGTON — They export BMWs and bird seed and plenty in between. Their middle class is growing fast enough to draw the likes of Marriott and Walmart. China, Europe, Japan, and the United States are vying to build roads and power plants there.

No longer are the nations of sub-Saharan Africa, long a symbol of war, famine, and corruption, an economic basket case. Six of the world’s fastest-growing economies are there. Higher oil prices, richer consumers, and sounder governments have raised so much interest in Africa’s promise it’s being showcased this week at the first US-Africa Leaders Summit.

The question is: Can all this endure? Africa has stood on the verge of prosperity before, only to see its opportunities fizzle. Yet never has it stood to benefit as it does now.


‘‘Africa presents enormous opportunities,’’ said Paul Sullivan, at Acrow Bridge of Parsippany, N.J., which has put up hundreds of prefabricated steel bridges in Africa.

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As African leaders gather to mark a decade of economic gains, they appear intent on sustaining the growth and ensuring the benefits are spread broadly and not siphoned away by corrupt officials and foreign companies.

In the decades after many of the countries regained independence in the 1960s, their natural resources — Nigerian oil, Liberian diamonds, Congolese copper and cobalt — failed to support durable growth. They sometimes proved to be a curse: Proceeds would vanish into Swiss bank accounts of corrupt leaders and give armed factions something to fight over.

Analysts note the current resurgence is built on foundations sturdier than commodity prices. Many nations have become more democratic, making it easier for entrepreneurs to do business, and have boosted investment in education and infrastructure. A decade of solid growth has created a middle class with more spending power — 350 million strong in 2010 by the African Development Bank’s count, up from 220 million in 2000.

Armed conflicts are down, despite headlines about terrorist groups Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabab in Somalia.


The improved environment has benefited even countries without bounteous natural resources. In resource-poor Rwanda, for example, economic growth rose from an average 1.7 percent from 1990 to 2000 to 7.7 percent the next decade.

The consultancy Ernst & Young ranks Africa as the world’s second-most-attractive market, after North America. Foreign investment in sub-Saharan Africa catapulted from $33.5 billion in 2000 to $246.4 billion in 2012, according to United Nations numbers the Brookings Institution analyzed.

No nation has been more aggressive in Africa than China. Its direct investment in sub-Saharan Africa jumped from virtually nothing in 2002 to $18.2 billion in 2012. China is hungry for oil, coal and other resources.

Africans tend to favor China in part because it’s less likely than Western nations to demand economic and political reforms.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced $14 billion in commitments from US businesses to invest in Africa — money for construction, clean energy, banking, information technology, and other uses.