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US Investment in Africa is on the Rise

After years of trailing European investors on the continent, American business is now taking a serious look at African investment opportunities. U.S. trade with the continent now accounts for approaching 20 percent of the total, while the European share is falling.

The world's oil and commodities boom is helping Africa to experience better economic times. Political instability, war and lack of infrastructure are all obstacles for Wall Street, but those attitudes came under challenge last week at a major investment conference in New York.

Some of South Africa's most prominent political and business leaders flew half way around the world to attend the conference in New York.

After 12 years of democracy, South Africa -- Sub Sahara's largest economy -- wants U.S. investment to help fund its biggest infrastructure boom ever. The country will host the 2010 World Cup, and the soccer tournament means billions of dollars in infrastructure projects which need funding from Wall Street and the rest of the world.

Worries over political instability, war and Africa's pandemic of HIV/AIDS have acted as a drag on U.S. investment.

Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, in New York to reassure potential investors, argues that South Africa is the safest investment on the continent.

"If you are going to invest in the continent, which I think in the medium term is a must for most investors, the place to take a look at how you can do that, where you can do it safely politically and where you can find people of confidence in my experience is significantly South Africa".

Higher commodity prices have helped investors in gold and platinum, and South Africa's successful World Cup bid is providing additional opportunity, according to business leaders like Maria Ramos, the Chief Executive of South Africa's port, rail and pipeline operator, Transnet.

"Whether it is in the building of the infrastructure, in the stadia, whether it is in the businesses around it, whether it's in terms of the amount of hotel rooms we're going to need, the jobs that are going to be created, whether it is the tourism industry where the spinoffs, I think, are well beyond 2010"

Foreign direct investment into Africa jumped 78 percent last year to a record $31 billion. While South Africa received the lion's share of almost six and a half billion, countries like Angola, Botswana and Mozambique also saw large increases and Africa's economy as whole grew five and a half percent in 2005.

The message here from South Africa's business leaders is that South Africa is a gateway to the rest of the almost-untapped continent.

And it's not just large South African companies that are benefiting. Africa's young economic pioneers are seeking U.S. capital as well. Sibongile Sambo manages a startup aviation company, SRS Air. "It would definitely help our company to grow. We need investors in the form of debt or equity that can fast track the growth in our company."

There is a also a strategic element to U.S. investment in Africa. The Chinese are rapidly moving into the African marketplace.

Oil-rich countries like Angola and Sudan now export more to China than to any other country. With traditional sources of energy in the Middle East unstable at best, analysts argue that U.S. investment in South Africa may provide more than just monetary returns.