Keith Naughton Washington

FORD plans to expand its manufacturing plants in Africa, where it is introducing models like the Mustang sports car and forecasts industrywide sales will grow 40 percent by 2020.

“Everything is pointing towards a surge in the African economy,” Jim Benintende, the head of operations in the Middle East and Africa, said on Monday on the eve of the US-Africa Business Forum in Washington. “We’re really focused on this region like never before.”

Ford’s increased focus on the region mirrors that of other major US firms such as General Electric, which announced plans on Monday to invest $2 billion (R21bn) in the region by 2018 and double its workforce there.

The summit is aimed at boosting economic ties to help nurture growth on the fastest-growing continent.

Benintende, a Ford veteran appointed to run the regional operation this year, is formulating an Africa growth strategy for Mark Fields, who took over as chief executive on July 1 after Alan Mulally retired.

The plan was to increase Ford’s factories in Africa beyond its two plants in South Africa, with Nigeria being considered as an option, he said.

“Mark is the one leading the charge, saying: ‘Tell me what I need to do for you to make this all work’,” Benintende said. “He’s fully engaged.”

Africa’s vehicle market is accelerating rapidly. Ford projects that industrywide sales will grow to 2.1 million vehicles over the next six years, from 1.5 million last year.

Africa’s driving-age population is projected to soar 55 percent to 840 million people by 2023 from 540 million last year, according to Ford.

The continent remained a difficult place to do business, Benintende said, citing the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Sierra Leone and civil unrest in Nigeria caused by Boko Haram.

“It’s going to be a rocky road for a bit of time,” Benintende said. – Bloomberg