Kenya Power and Light Co. has been run by the government in Nairobi for more than a decade, long enough that today nobody knows what its stock is really worth or what assets the listings on its books really represent. Given the rampant electricity theft in a Third World country, no one even knows where all of its electricity goes.
But for Justin F. Beckett, now that the company is privatizing, the question is not whether to buy stock. He only wonders whether he will be able to get enough.
"Just on population growth alone, Kenya Power and Light is a wonderful long-term investment, and if we can get a big enough block of shares to be worthwhile, we'll be among the first investors as it privatizes," Mr. Beckett said.
If you like that kind of adventure-oriented approach to investing, Mr. Beckett is ready to roll your dice for you.
As president and chief executive officer of New Africa Advisers Inc., he heads the team that will scout the continent for places to put the money investors send to the newly opened Calvert New Africa Fund, the first open-ended U.S. mutual fund to invest in countries from Egypt to Zimbabwe.
The New Africa Fund will be bucking a trend of both global and U.S. investors to shy away from Africa even more than they have from other Third World areas.
While foreign investment in the Third World has more than quadrupled since the mid-1980s, Africa has slipped from capturing more than 11 percent of foreign investors' Third World allocations then to getting about 5 percent in recent years, the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reported yesterday.
Even when they do invest in Africa, U.S. operators of open-ended mutual funds have stuck to the more established and less volatile exchange in Johannesburg, South Africa, leaving the rest of the continent to be explored by more risk-oriented closed-end funds, which are traded on stock exchanges and do not issue new shares after their initial offering.
The New Africa Fund wasn't the idea of mutual fund companies, either.
It grew out of the work of the Sloan Financial Group, of Durham, N.C., the largest African-American-owned financial management company in the United States. It founded New Africa Advisers in 1993, one day after the United States lifted sanctions that had been imposed to help break South Africa's apartheid.
Mr. Beckett, a burly Duke University graduate who has been with Sloan for 10 years, moved to Johannesburg to begin scouring Africa's investment openings, and Sloan began marketing Africa an investment to institutional investors, including the city of Baltimore, the state of California, Pepsico Inc. and Coca Cola Co. Inc.
With $50 million under management by this year, NAA began to " think about a retail mutual fund and started the search for an established fund operator to work with.
"With even a few years of experience on the ground, we had a choice of mutual fund partners, but we also wanted to commit 15 percent of the fund as venture capital to help smaller businesses get off the ground," Mr. Beckett said.
Bethesda-based Calvert Group, which emphasizes social service in all of the $4.6 billion in other people's money it manages and was the first to pull money out of South Africa under apartheid, was the only mutual fund operator that saw merit in making venture capital part of an Africa fund's portfolio.
"The venture capital component is not only socially responsible, it's also where the really big upside potential is in Africa," he said.
"You can own a McDonald's franchise for $10,000 in a part of the world where everyone is on the move and the market for fast food is limitless, so we're negotiating right now with a company that wants to open 100 franchises, which means about $1 million, of which we might provide $100,000 or so," he said.
The Calvert Group is pushing Mr. Beckett's fund as a chance at "the ultimate emerging market," and Mr. Beckett acknowledged that among Americans, Africa will not appeal to the risk-averse investor.
Calvert officials say they expect the fund to find a market among investors who like to be on the cutting edge, among investors who favor "socially responsible" ventures and among African-Americans and others who feel some tie to Africa.
The U.N. agency suggests that such investors may find their rewards are on the bottom line.
Investments in Africa have consistently provided higher returns than those in Latin America or in developing countries as a whole, and Africa has been "the region with the highest rates of return" in the Third World, UNCTAD said.
That makes sense to Mr. Beckett.
Africa has essentials that cannot be found in more popular emerging markets, such as Eastern Europe, China and Latin America, he said.
"Managements in Africa tend to be people with European business degrees or U.S. master's degrees in business administration, and accounting standards are mostly British, which are among the strictest in the world, so sitting down with a company's financial officer is more like taking a trip to Canada than to China," he said.
"The colonial decades left behind a wealth of people experienced in capitalist businesses, and all that talent is now reawakening after the years of nationalization, so that you don't have to explain the need for accounting standards, or what an initial public offering is, or why an investor expects to repatriate profits to his home country, the way you do in China," he said.
Despite the new fund's intention of reaching out to the entire continent, South Africa's big population and relatively developed economy will make it dominant in the portfolio for the foreseeable future.
The fund aims to draw in $50 million in investments by the end of this year and plans to put about 73 percent of its money into South African businesses.
The minimum investment in the fund is $2,000, from which it will deduct a 2 percent commission, or "front-end load." An additional 2 percent "back-end load" will be deducted from proceeds of shares sold within two years, to be paid back into the fund for investment.
Prospectuses and applications are available from Calvert Distributors Inc., 4550 Montgomery Ave., Bethesda 20814.