By Helen Nyambura-Mwaura

JOHANNESBURG - Liberty Holdings, Africa's third-largest life insurer by market value, posted an expected 43 percent rise in first-half earnings on Thursday and said it was looking for expansion opportunities in the western part of the continent.

Liberty, majority owned by South Africa's Standard Bank , owns 50 percent on a Nigerian health insurer but wants more exposure to Africa's most populous nation and is also eyeing new oil producer, Ghana.

“Africa is definitely worth the effort. Clearly it has its challenges, but we think if you don't position yourself for the opportunity in Africa, there's a good chance you'll miss it,” CEO Bruce Hemphill said in a conference call.

Liberty, which has operations in 14 African countries, said assets under management in Africa excluding its home country remained flat at 39 billion rand. African earnings outside South Africa were also stagnant.

The company's earnings per share totalled 632.7 cents in the six months to end-June, compared with 443 cents a year ago as it wrote more premiums and its investment portfolio yielded better returns.

It flagged last month that earnings would be between 570 and 650 cents per share.

Liberty said insurance sales rose 22 percent to 2.7 billion rand ($326.62 million) while the asset management business saw 5.4 billion rand of net inflows.

Its assets under management grew nearly 8 percent to 484 billion rand ($58.55 billion) the investment portfolio saw a gross return of 6.4 percent.

Liberty, which were down 0.2 percent at 0941 GMT, have gained 25 percent so far this year, compared with a 36 percent rise in Johannesburg's index of life insurance companies .

Standard Bank is due to report its on August 16.

($1 = 8.2665 South African rand) - Reuters