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CAPE TOWN-Though not for the timid, sub-Saharan Africa could prove to be the next boom in retail real estate, investors and developers noted at a session at the International Council of Shopping Centers’ Retail World Summit here.

Some countries are seeing rapid GDP growth – Angola alone will see a 20% rise in GDP this year – but infrastructure problems, and even the lack of basic property title hamper the development process.

“These are shark-infested waters,” and not for the impatient says Mike Flax, executive director of Madison Property Fund Managers, Roggebaai, South Africa, which has invested in Angola and Namibia, and is looking at Nigeria. “But we hope that Africa is the true El Dorado.”

Investors are slowly moving into the region. While South Africa has had a sophisticated shopping center industry for decades, the format is now being seen in Angola, Namibia, Botswana and elsewhere. Still, there are numerous obstacles, most particularly the lack of reliable market data.

“You have to go with gut feel,” Flax says. “We will follow the commodities and the new money.”

China has been investing heavily in Africa, and also is a good indicator of opportunities.

“We allow the Chinese to put in the infrastructure, and we’ll build the shopping centers,” Flax says.

Corruption, too, is a problem, and one the panel advised others to avoid at all costs.

“One really needs to know who you’re doing business with,” says Lukas Casey, senior investment officer –global manufacturing and services department of Washington, DC-based International Finance Corp., a passive investor in emerging markets. “Our partner really has to run the show, and we have to trust their judgment.”

“As a foreign investor you have to leverage on the local expertise of your partners,” agrees Dr. Seek Ngee Haut, president of GIC Real Estate, Singapore. “Buying assets is an easy thing, finding partners [much less so].

In some areas, finding property deeds is difficult, as well. In some areas, people have never heard of property rights, or a deeds office. Establishing such legal protections is critical to attracting foreign investment, Flax says.

Transparency and market liquidity also would help, notes Seek. A stable currency also is a major draw, Casey says.

“Retail mall transactions are done with local currency,” he says.

Still, some remain reticent.

“We are not there because we don’t want to enter a country, make an investment and go away again,” says George Jautze, chairman and CEO of ING Real Estate, the Hague, Netherlands.

Attendees noted that many foreign investors mistakenly look at Africa as one market, equating politically and economically stable nations such as Botswana with more troubled neighbors, and declining to enter any.

The stable nations can help attract investment in a number of ways, the panelists said, even down to adding basic business infrastructure such as building sufficient hotel rooms to house potential investors. More marketing must be done to the global investment communities, Seek notes.

And Jautze noted that US investors took many years to begin in investing in Europe, and so Africa may be a next step – eventually.

“It will take a lot of years,” Jautze says. “And a lot of education.”

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