More surprising is that much of this growth is driven not by the sale of raw materials, like oil or diamonds, but by a burgeoning domestic market, the largest outside India and China. In the last four years, the surge in private consumption of goods and services has accounted for two thirds of Africa's GDP growth. The rapidly emerging African middle class could number as many as 300 million, out of a total population of 1 billion, according to development expert Vijay Majahan, author of the 2009 book Africa Rising. While few of them have the kind of disposable income found in Asia and the West, these accountants, teachers, maids, taxi drivers, even roadside street vendors, are driving up demand for goods and services like cell phones, bank accounts, upmarket foodstuffs, and real estate. In fact, in Africa's 10 largest economies, the service sector makes up 40 percent of GDP, not too far from India's 53 percent. "The new Africa story is consumption," says Graham Thomas, head of principal investment at Standard Bank Group, which operates in 17 African countries.
Much of the boom in this new consumer class can be attributed to outside forces: evolving trade patterns, particularly from increased demand coming out of China, and technological innovation abroad that spurs local productivity and growth like the multibillion-dollar fiber-optic lines that are being laid out between Africa and the developed world. Other changes are domestic and deliberate. Despite Africa's well-founded reputation for corruption and poor governance, a substantial chunk of the continent has quietly experienced this economic renaissance by dint of its virtually unprecedented political stability. Spurred by eager investors, governments have steadily deregulated industries and developed infrastructure. As a result, countries such as Kenya and Botswana now boast privately owned world-class hospitals, charter schools, and toll roads that are actually safe to drive on. A study by a World Bank program, the Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnostic, found that improvements in Africa's telecom infrastructure have contributed as much as 1 percent to per capita GDP growth, a bigger role than changes in monetary or fiscal policies. Shares of stocks in recently privatized local airlines, freight companies, and telecoms have skyrocketed.
Entrepreneurship has increased at the same time, powered in part by the influx of returning skilled workers. Just as waves of expats returned to China and India in the 1990s to start businesses that in turn attracted more outside talent and capital, there are now signs that an entrepreneurial African diaspora will help transform the continent. While brain drain is still a chronic problem in countries such as Burundi and Malawi—some of the poorest in the world on a per capita basis—Africa's most robust economies, such as those in Ghana, Botswana, and South Africa, are beginning to see an unprecedented brain gain. According to some reports, roughly 10,000 skilled professionals have returned to Nigeria in the last year, and the number of educated Angolans seeking jobs back home has spiked 10-fold, to 1,000, in the last five years. Bart Nnaji gave up a tenured professorship at the University of Pittsburgh to move back to Nigeria in 2005 and run Geometric Power, the first private power company in sub-Saharan Africa. Its $400 million, 188-megawatt power plant will come online this fall as the sole provider of electricity for Aba, a city of 2 million in southeast Nigeria. Afam Onyema, a 30-year-old graduate of Harvard and Stanford Law, turned down six-figure offers in corporate law to build and run a $50 million state-of-the-art private hospital with a charitable component for the poor in southeast Nigeria.
Many experts believe Africa, with its expansive base of newly minted consumers, may very well be on the verge of becoming the next India, thanks to frenetic urbanization and the sort of big push in services and infrastructure that transformed the Asian subcontinent 15 years ago. Just as India once harnessed its booming population of cheap labor, Africa stands to gain by the rapid growth of its big cities. Already the continent boasts the world's highest rate of urbanization, which jump-starts growth through industrialization and economies of scale. Today only a third of Africa's population lives in cities, but that segment accounts for 80 percent of total GDP, according to the U.N. Centre for Human Settlements. In the next 30 years, half the continent's population will be living in cities.
Nowhere is this relationship between the consumer class and urbanization more apparent than in Lagos, Nigeria, a megalopolis of 18 million that has the anything-goes pace of a Chongqing or Mumbai. On Victoria Island, the city's commercial center, real estate is as expensive as in Manhattan. Everywhere you look, there is construction: luxury condos, office buildings, roads, even a brand-new city nearby being dredged from the sea that will hold half a million people. "Everything is in short supply, so everything's a high-growth area," explains Adedotun Sulaiman, a venture capitalist and chairman of Accenture in Nigeria. "In terms of opportunities, it's just mind-blowing." Aliko Dangote, Africa's richest black entrepreneur, has also cashed in on this consumer culture, with a net worth of $2.5 billion, according to Forbes. His empire, which began in 1978 as a trading business that imported, among other things, baby food, cement, and frozen fish, is focused on Nigeria's burgeoning domestic growth, producing cement for shopping and office complexes; renting luxury condos; making noodles, flour, and sugar; and now expanding into services such as 3G mobile networks and transportation. "There's nowhere you can make money like in Nigeria," says the 53-year-old Dangote. "It's the world's best-kept secret."
Not anymore. A recent study by Oxford economist Paul Collier of all 954 publicly traded African companies operating between 2000 and 2007 found that their annual return on capital was on average 65 percent higher than those of similar firms in China, India, Vietnam, or Indonesia because labor costs are skyrocketing in Asia. Their median profit margin, 11 percent, was also higher than in Asia or South America. African mobile operators, for instance, showed the highest profit margins in the industry worldwide. As a result, foreign multinationals like Unilever, Nestlé, and Swissport International report some of their highest growth in Africa. So even as foreign direct investment fell by 20 percent worldwide in 2008, capital in-flows to Africa actually jumped 16 percent, to $61.9 billion, its highest level ever, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Even Chinese companies are thinking of outsourcing basic manufacturing to Africa. The World Bank is now helping China set up an industrial zone in Ethiopia, the first of perhaps several offshore centers akin to the sprawling free-trade zones that opened up China's economy in the 1980s.
Still, Africa remains at the very frontier of emerging markets. Despite its gains, the difficulty and cost of running a business there are the highest in the world, according to data from the International Monetary Fund. Couple that with pervasive corruption—Transparency International calls the problem "rampant" in 36 of 53 African states—and it's no wonder Africa is often regarded as a toxic place to operate. But World Bank president Robert Zoellick says that in the aftermath of the economic crisis, long-term investors have recognized that "developed markets have big risks too." Like China and India, Africa is exploiting that fact, and perhaps more than any other region it is illustrative of a new world order in which the poorest nations will still find ways to steam ahead.