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Originally published Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Africa, the next Asia for investors?

Economies in Africa are among the world's fast growers, and more analysts suggest investors pay attention to the continent. Historically, heavy debt loads...

Economies in Africa are among the world's fast growers, and more analysts suggest investors pay attention to the continent.

Historically, heavy debt loads and political strife weighed on Africa. But since 2001, the resource-rich continent has been lifted by stronger prices for oil, gold and other commodities.

Africa, in some ways, resembles Asia 20 to 30 years ago, when that region began its growth spurt, Credit Suisse analysts say in a recent report.

They point to greater political stability, higher education levels, investments by China, continued commodity price strength and lower inflation. The latter is about 6 percent compared with 19 percent in the 1980s.

It can be difficult for U.S. investors to get access to African stocks, especially outside South Africa.

Few analysts follow them, and they can be thinly traded. But Americans can play the region's growth through U.S. companies.

Another avenue is mutual funds focused on Africa. T. Rowe Price launched its Africa & Middle East fund (TRAMX) last year.

Most of the fund's holdings are in the Middle East. Joseph Rohm, vice president of T. Rowe Price International, sees opportunities in energy, financials, infrastructure and telecommunications, as mobile-telephone use skyrockets across the continent.

African stocks tend to have a relatively low correlation with the U.S. market, which helps diversify investors' portfolios, Rohm says.

African banks, for example, have largely sidestepped the huge write-downs global banks have taken in connection with U.S. mortgages.

The corporate-management talent pool is also improving, as Africans educated in the United States and Europe return, Rohm says.

To be sure, Africa still has a way to go to become the next Asia, experts say.

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Though Africa makes up 13 percent of the world's 6.5 billion population, it accounts for just 2 percent of global economic output, Credit Suisse says.

A drop in commodity prices would also hurt. And though conditions have improved, political strife remains.

The T. Rowe Price fund avoids such markets as Zimbabwe for this reason.

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