Unlocking infrastructure potential in Africa: The role of sovereign wealth funds

By Seedwell Hove

Sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) are increasingly becoming major sources of finance in many countries. Commonly established from balance of payments surpluses, foreign currency reserves and fiscal surpluses, global SWF assets under management have grown rapidly in recent years, topping US$7.2 trillion in 2015, more than double the asset base in 2008. African countries have joined the international trend in establishing SWF in recent years, with assets under management now over US$159 billion (6.4 percent of Africa’s GDP). The rapid growth of SWFs in Africa has been catalysed by high commodity prices from the early 2000s till 2014, coupled with the recent discoveries of oil, gas and solid minerals in countries like Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania. Despite the plunge in commodity prices since 2014, SWFs continue to increase both in number and in assets under management.

At the same time, Africa has huge infrastructure gaps which are constraining growth. The World Bank estimates that about US$93 billion is required annually to meet the continent’s infrastructure needs, but only half of that amount is currently being met. Booming population growth and increasing life expectancy across the continent is pushing up demand for utilities such as water, power, roads and telecommunications, which few countries are providing in sufficient quantities. About 19 percent of roads in Sub-Saharan Africa are paved, compared with 27 percent in Latin America and 43 percent in South Asia. Some 57 percent of the population in Africa lack access to electricity and about 30 countries face regular baseload power shortages, resulting in the payment of high premiums for emergency power. The proportion of people with access to improved water sources is 68 percent in SSA compared with 94 percent in East Asia and 95 percent in Latin America. Inadequate infrastructure is raising the cost of doing business, hindering trade integration and constraining growth. The poor state of infrastructure is estimated to reduce growth by two percentage points every year and cut business productivity by as much as 40 percent. Africa’s firms lose five percent of their sales due to power outages and this figure rises to 20 percent for firms in the informal sector.

Accelerating Africa’s growth hinges on closing the infrastructure gap, yet mobilizing finance for infrastructure development remains a daunting challenge.

The scope for financing infrastructure from traditional sources such as public revenues, banks and debt markets is limited, especially after the global financial crisis. Thus Africa needs new sources of finance for infrastructure, and sovereign wealth funds can contribute significantly in financing infrastructure.

SWFs are well positioned to finance infrastructure, for several reasons. First, they have a long-term investment horizon, and can provide long-term capital which is necessary for infrastructure financing. Second, they usually have limited or sometimes no explicit liabilities (since they are usually drawn from the fiscus), in contrast to other institutional investors such as pension funds. Third, infrastructure provides reasonably higher and inflation-protected yields, coupled with lower correlation to other financial assets, which implies lower risk. Fourth, once constructed, infrastructure assets are less vulnerable to economic downturns compared with other assets which are pro cyclical.  Given Africa’s demographics and infrastructure financing gaps, channeling SWF resources towards infrastructure is a positive step towards building above-ground assets for future generations.

Asset allocation of African SWFs is largely determined by their mandates, which include economic stabilization, intergenerational savings accumulation, buffers against economic shocks, wealth diversification and economic development (e.g. infrastructure and industrial development). In addition, economic outlook, fiscal situation, market trends, investment beliefs, regulations, risk appetite and liability considerations also influence investment decisions of SWFs. Our analysis suggests that allocating about 20 percent of the current African sovereign wealth funds could cover Africa’s annual infrastructure financing gap atleast for a year, assuming no inefficiencies. Allocating about 15 percent of African SWFs could close the energy financing gap while the water and sanitation financing gap could be covered by an allocation of 8.4 percent of Africa sovereign wealth funds. For a sample of countries which have established SWF, there is positive correlation between SWF assets and access to electricity, suggesting that SWF can make a difference in infrastructure development.

There are many opportunities for investing in Africa’s infrastructure. Africa has abundant natural resources (10 percent of world reserves of oil, 40 percent of gold, 80–90 percent of chromium and the platinum group of minerals and agriculture resources which provide opportunities for infrastructure investments in resources and industrial beneficiation sectors. The continent is also undergoing rapid urbanization, with relatively young labour force and growing middle class which provide opportunities in real estate, telecommunications, energy and water and sanitation sectors. Africa’s population will more than double to about 2.4 billion by 2050, representing growing future demand for infrastructure. Estimates suggest that demand for energy in Africa will grow at 6 percent per year to 3 100 terawatt hours (TWh), while transport volumes will increase by 6-8 times the current amount by 2040. Returns on investments in Africa have been considered to be higher than in other developing regions, which could be the case for infrastructure investments, considering existing infrastructure funding gaps, especially in energy, transport and water and sanitation. While opportunities for infrastructure investments in Africa are immense, there are also some risks to consider. For instance, political risks (e.g. arising from change of governments), currency fluctuations, commodity price fluctuations, financing risks and lack of high quality data to measure and manage risks.

SWF can certainly play an important role in financing infrastructure development in Africa.  For this to be possible, African SWFs need to have clear objectives and ensure that their investment strategies are consistent with their set mandates. SWF can make efforts to allocate a sizeable portion of assets towards infrastructure investments or create a sub-entity with a specified mandate towards infrastructure investment, as exemplified by Ghana, Nigeria and Angola. African governments can also promote infrastructure investment by demonstrating commitment to investor protection in terms of property rights, stable legal systems, zero tolerance on corruption and upholding of legitimate projects after political transitions. This is important specially to attract other SWFs outside Africa or private investors. Institutional investors often raise concerns of liquidity and risks in infrastructure investments. As such, there is need to design financial instruments which are liquid and credit enhanced, with investment grade ratings to incentivise SWF to invest their huge resources in infrastructure. Improving infrastructure project preparation and packaging could also be helpful in attracting SWF into infrastructure investments. It is also important to address data gaps to help improve the measurement and management of risks in infrastructure investments and unlock more funding into infrastructure in Africa.