South African real-estate investors are looking for high returns in the African market, despite the myriad challenges of investing within the continent.
South Africa is, in some ways, akin to the neighborhood misfit: its historical and contemporary socio-economic environment, such as world class universities and medical schools, a fabulously lucrative niche safari sector and a diverse population set it apart from its regional and continental neighbors. As the non-African international community begins to increase its interest in Africa’s property market, so too are South African property developers. During a recent South African Property Owners Association (SAPOA) Convention, speakers suggested that property markets around the continent are ripe for investment.
Research, Research, Research
At the Johannesburg Sandton Convention Centre, speakers suggested that investors need to treat African property markets with respect: not only do investors need to know their individual markets, but they need to treat the African market as a long game, just like the American, Asian and European markets are treated. Bronwyn Corbett, head of Mara Delta investment group, the only pan-African listed fund, urged investors to see the trees within the forest: “each African country is different. Each is a challenge, and it wouldn’t be worth doing this if it wasn’t a challenge.”
That kind of optimism may be the key to successful investment choices. Property investment is full of obstacles regardless of the location but, speakers noted, Africa has some obstacles that may prove larger than in other markets further afield.
Getting a Bang for your Buck
Among the top cited concerns, some are universal and some are uniquely African. Volatile political climates, rapidly fluctuating currencies and changing rules and regulations surrounding the real estate markets were just a few of the concerns discussed by Corbett. “I appreciate that investors want us to make good deals. We are starting to find things but we have to learn as we go along. Many South African investors don’t actually know what happens on the ground in Africa and may expect things to happen more quickly,” Corbett said.
What happens “on the ground” in Africa is, Corbett insinuates, very different from what happens in the realm of South African investors. Deal brokering and relationships are very different for the elite of South Africa. These individuals entrust their capital to firms like Mara Delta to avoid the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day wheeling and dealing required to obtain high quality assets in Africa and elsewhere. Corbett cautions that it is the firm’s responsibility to have an understanding of the potential obstacles in African markets outside of South Africa. Their customers cannot be expected to have an understanding of property markets and thus, investment funds must do their homework into each potential investment market.
Mara Delta, a substantially black-owned and primarily black-managed investment firm with properties on the Johannesburg stock exchange since 2012, has an impressively broad portfolio that includes private and industrial properties in Morocco, Mozambique, Zambia, Mauritius, Kenya and Nigeria. With this geographically diverse set of investments, Mara Delta is a reliable advisor for potential investors. Corbett touched upon perhaps the primary concern for future international investors: the currency market. There are more than 40 different currencies used in Africa, and extracting funds from these countries can take time, both due to the exchange process and due to the sluggish bureaucratic process of African banks. In addition to currency-related challenges are the limited debt and credit lines available through African banks.
Worth the Price?
Some fund managers voiced their concern that African properties are significantly more expensive when compared to more developed properties in Asia, Canada and Central and Eastern Europe. “Our research indicates that prices per square meter have been significantly higher (in Africa) than similar investments in developed markets,” said Alternative Real Estate Capital Management’s Garreth Elston.
Real estate investments are, Corbett urged, worth the trouble. She cited the South African market as a symbol of endurance even in challenging times as long as quality assets are purchased, for the right price. Given the uncertainty of the global economy in light of Britain’s imminent exit from the European Union, real estate may once again become the safest bet.