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Hundreds, if not thousands, of people crowd onto the morning ferry to make their way from the Lungi area south across the Sierra Leone River to Freetown in this April 17, 2012, file photo. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people crowd onto the morning ferry to make their way from the Lungi area south across the Sierra Leone River to Freetown in this April 17, 2012, file photo. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

African consumer boom bypasses many in poverty-stricken Sierra Leone Add to ...

In sight of a crumbling 18th-century slave trade fort overgrown with jungle, a conveyor belt pours ochre-red iron ore into the belly of a bulk carrier moored on the muddy Sierra Leone River.

Past and present peer across the water at each other in this small West African state, one of several hailed by economists as flag bearers of a new rising Africa seen as a pole of investment and potential prosperity in a troubled, recession-hit world.

In New York, London and Johannesburg, fund managers, bankers and frontier market analysts are telling clients Sub-Saharan Africa, dismissed a decade ago as hopeless and chaotic, is now ready to rival India and China as an economic success story.

“People are pouring capital into the continent,” said Charles Robertson, Global Chief Economist at investment bank Renaissance Capital. “We believe now is Africa’s moment.”

He cites figures to show that swelling growth and investment is buoying oil development, mining, banking, telecommunications and retail markets in the world’s least developed region.

But bubbling up with the statistics are enduring questions about governance, poverty, stability, corruption, climate change and, crucially, if and how the extracted wealth will be shared.

At a launch by Renaissance in a Johannesburg hotel last month of a book on Africa’s “Economic Revolution,” participants heard a prediction that the region’s economy will grow from $2-trillion (U.S.) today to $29-trillion by 2050, greater than the output of both the United States and the euro zone.

The chic hotel of the book launch is a world away from Sangbulima, a hamlet of 1,000 souls perched on Tasso Island in the Sierra Leone River where wooden canoes loaded with nets cluster on a muddy beach not far from Bunce Island slave fort.

Across the channel is the iron ore loading terminal run by London AIM-listed company African Minerals, a major player in the Sierra Leone mining revival the government believes will propel the nation into a new promised era of African prosperity.

Day and night, Sangbulima villagers see the ore ships go by on their way downriver to the Atlantic Ocean.

“We see them pass,” said Idrissa Kargbo, 38, “This mining brings a lot of money to the country.

“But, for us here, we are not seeing the money,” he added.

Here, as elsewhere on this booming but turbulent continent, extractive industries, construction, mobile phones and other harbingers of modernity are thrusting themselves into the lives of Africans, stirring high expectations but also uncertainties.

Renaissance Capital, one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest cheerleaders, sees it “charging forward on almost every metric.”

A chorus of similar reports from institutions, banks and consultancies forecasts Africa roaring ahead as a fast-growth pole in the next decade, its projected 5-6 per cent expansion rate outstripping the expected global average by several points.

This upbeat outlook is pinned on an expected “demographic dividend” of a young and rapidly growing work force in the next few years, on rapid urbanization, and a surge in middle-class consumers.

Around 90 million African households had joined the world’s consuming classes by 2011, and this would rise to 128 million in 2020, according to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute.

The African Development Bank sees African consumer spending almost doubling in the next decade.

This is seen opening up huge investment and business opportunities, especially in retail, telecoms and banking.

But some are cautious about the blizzard of upbeat figures. “It clouds a lot of issues,” Dianna Games, CEO of Johannesburg-based consulting company Africa@Work, told Reuters.

While acknowledging the “rising tide effect” of the African resurgence, Ms. Games believes the statistics conceal “shaky pillars” – especially failures by African governments to translate resource-driven growth into real improvements in education, health, jobs and a better business climate.

“There is so much that still needs to be done, policy-wise,’ she said.

Ideological critics of “Africa Rising” see a continent being not lifted but “looted.” They say foreign corporations allied with local elites are applying a neo-liberal formula of resource-driven development that depletes and degrades Africa’s non-renewable natural wealth, resulting in net loss, not gain.

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