The whole of sub-Saharan Africa is the real quasi-BRIC. South Africa alone can't match the others in the emerging club. But add non-Arab continental neighbors, and the combined GDP is $1.3-trillion by the World Bank's tally, and growing fast. Single countries are too small for most investors. But if the region can combine markets and trade, it could take off.
That kind of output brings Sub-Saharan Africa within striking distance of Brazil, Russia, India and China. Russia and India, for instance, each have GDP of some $1.8-trillion, according to the International Monetary Fund. With expected growth of around 5 per cent in 2012 and 5.7 per cent in 2013, the region would attract investor interest – that beats, for example, the anemic expansion expected in Brazil. Inflation, meanwhile, is running below 10 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa and even the collective current account deficit, some 3 per cent of GDP, is only a mild worry.
That's all the more impressive considering that Africa has at least its share of basket-cases. The Democratic Republic of Congo is riven by civil war, Zimbabwe is recovering from hyperinflation, Somalia is close to a failed state and South Sudan is struggling with birth pangs following Sudan's split. Even the continent's richest large country, South Africa, is facing labor unrest and expected 2012 growth of only 2.6 per cent.
Yet the 50-plus countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are hopelessly fragmented and private foreign investment is meager at only 1.8 per cent of GDP in 2012, according to the IMF. Official capital inflows are about the same size. For that to change, concerted action is needed.
Political union seems a distant prospect. As Europe's difficulties have shown, a single sub-Saharan currency is also an unlikely idea for such disparate economies. A central stock exchange, however, is a possibility, perhaps located in a small, wealthy and stable country such as Botswana, Gabon or Ghana. Such a center could provide an entrepot for Africa similar to the function performed for Asia by Singapore and Hong Kong. In addition, free-trade agreements could lower the generally high intra-African tariffs, thereby increasing the markets available to producers in the region and allowing them to achieve economic scale.
Africa is emerging, fitfully. Its mutually suspicious governments aren't likely to find much common ground. But if only they could, they might have a serious rival to the BRICs on their hands.