London - High stakes for high return, if you can stick it out for the long term - investors are buying into a boom in sub-Saharan African real estate.
Forecasts for 20 percent net annual returns from investing in shopping malls, office blocks or industrial complexes in countries from Zambia to Kenya is drawing in new investors, despite more immediate concerns in some countries about Ebola, terrorism or political stability.
Investors have already taken a liking to sub-Saharan African dollar debt, encouraging a record $10 billion (R107 billion) in sovereign and corporate issuance last year and $5 billion so far this year, according to Thomson Reuters data.
But when even bonds from Kenya and Senegal offer yields of only five or six percent, enthusiastic risk-takers may choose to invest on the ground in Africa.
Momentum Global Investment Management is launching a $250 million sub-Saharan real estate fund later this year, focusing initially on shopping malls and office buildings in countries such as Mozambique and Rwanda.
The fund has a life of up to eight years, so it won't be a fast way to make a buck - but Momentum expects it to be lucrative.
“The number one reason (to invest) is return - 18-20 percent on an annual basis, if you are in for the full eight years,” said David Lashbrook, head of Africa investment strategies at Momentum.
“The investors we are looking at targeting are institutions who can be locked up for the whole eight years.”
As Africa's fast-growing population gains spending power and moves into the cities, demand for real estate will grow, fund managers say.
Urbanisation and population growth will boost the number of people in cities globally by 2.5 billion over the next three decades, with much of that growth in Africa and Asia, a recent United Nations study said.
“The desire of the increasingly middle class to meet, socialise, shop and spend their leisure time in facilities or retail developments that are on a par with what you find around the world is not going to abate, it is going to continue,” said David Morley, head of real estate at private equity firm Actis.
Actis has raised and invested nearly $500 million in two real estate funds, with markets including Nigeria, Zambia and Mozambique.
Morley is also targeting annual returns of 20 percent or more, around 5 to 10 percentage points more than returns seen in similar mainstream emerging or developed funds.
WHY REAL ESTATE?
Building costs in many African countries are high, real estate specialists say, partly because many materials have to be imported.
But potential rents are also high - at a monthly $25-30 per square metre for high-end office blocks in cities like Rwanda's capital Kigali or Ghana's capital Accra, compared with below $20 in Johannesburg.
There are currently eight Africa-focused unlisted real estate funds targeting $1.25 billion in capital, according to data provider Preqin.
Around 69 percent of capital raised for African real estate funds between 2009 and 2013 was focused on sub-Saharan Africa excluding South Africa, up from 40 percent from 2006 to 2009.
Private equity funds look to attract institutional investors and traditionally do offer higher returns, due to the risks of investing in unlisted companies which may be less transparent.
But Ghana and Nigeria already have real estate investment trusts (REITs) - similar to mutual funds - which can be listed on stock markets and make it easier for retail investors to access the sector.
Kenyan legislation to allow REITs is expected to go through this year.
The REIT market worldwide totals more than $1 trillion, according to consultancy EY, in more than 30 countries.
The market is less well-established in emerging markets, but countries such as Mexico and Brazil have REITs.
Stanlib is among fund managers looking to set up a Kenyan REIT.
It already has a fund listed in Johannesburg, which focuses on listed African real estate in countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mauritius, as well as South Africa.
Keillen Ndlovu, head of listed property funds at Stanlib, said the 200 million rand fund had trebled in size this year and was accessible to retail investors.
Investors are focusing on commercial properties rather than residential due to a limited supply of private housing and the lack of mortgage markets in Africa.
“We are not at that stage, we have been shown quite a few residential projects, there might be a chance - we have seen a few mixed developments,” said Lashbrook at Momentum.
“If you are building residential, in a lot of these countries there is no mortgage market.”
Returns of 20 percent or more don't come without significant risks.
Africa has been hitting the headlines for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and attacks in investment favourites Nigeria and Kenya, including last year's attack by the al Shabaab Islamist group on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall.
But real estate specialists say that while Ebola may devastate countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, it is a short-term issue, whereas they seek long-term gains from property.
Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea also do not rank among the main sub-Saharan markets targeted for real-estate investment.
Terrorism may add to the building costs of shopping malls, due to security and insurance costs.
“There is a concern, that's one of the first questions that come in - you do get more political risk,” Ndlovu said.
But terrorism risk is not unique to Africa, investors point out.
A bigger issue is land security, with documentation varying widely from country to country, and within countries.
That adds to the risk of investing in residential property, although Stephen Bailey-Smith, head of Africa research at Standard Bank in London, who recently built a beach house in Ghana, says the residential sector will eventually open up to investors.
“If you go into any city in Africa, you can see the need for decent housing is infinite,” he said. - Reuters