Fortune Magazine: Is Africa’s rise for real this time?
Its economics are surging, and foreign investment is exploding. The challenges—including Ebola—are immense. But the continent may finally be ready to deliver on its promise.
In the depths of the financial crisis in 2009, Irwin Barkan, a shopping-mall developer, was idling at home in rural Vermont with not a single project on his books when he fired up his computer and found an email from Morley Gordon. Gordon, his best friend’s son, whom he had known since Gordon was an infant, was traveling around Africa as a consultant for U.S. businesses. “Uncle Irwin,” Gordon wrote, “you should look at doing commercial real estate in Africa.” Barkan’s Boston-based company, I.J. Barkan Inc., had been developing shopping centers since 1984. But the deep recession had pummeled his industry and left the business Barkan ran with his wife, Lindsay, “dead in the water,” he says. Still, Africa seemed a stretch. “I’d never been to Africa,” says Barkan, 63, over beers at an outdoor jazz club one steaming tropical night in Accra, the capital city of Ghana in West Africa. “I thought about Africa like a lot of American businessmen: like the jungle.” Africa remained unfathomable to Barkan until 2011, when—still languishing in forced retirement—he happened to read one morning that his longtime tenant Wal-Mart, whose first New England stores had opened in Barkan’s developments in the 1980s, was paying $2.4 billion for a controlling stake in Africa’s biggest retail giant, Massmart Holdings, and that the No. 1 company in the Fortune 500 was now aiming for a slice of the continent’s exploding consumer market. It was Barkan’s eureka moment. “That was it,” he says. “I said, ‘We gotta go to Africa.’ ”….