Sub-Saharan Africa is booming. Average purchasing power in the region once denigrated as the heart of "the hopeless continent" has risen by a third in the past decade, and foreign investment is gushing in. Yet it's easy to miss the enormous differences between these 48 countries. Some, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, are still stuck with conflict and poor governance, but others -- even countries that investors have neglected, such as Burundi -- are laying the groundwork for the next stage of growth by investing in their people.
The problem with Sub-Saharan Africa begins with the term itself, whose meaning has become more than geographic. Increasingly, it signifies a region that does not include South Africa, considered a fairly developed, middle-income country where the average purchasing power is about the same as in Serbia or Peru. By that measure, however, Mauritius should be dropped as well. Some other groupings leave out oil-rich Nigeria, too, despite its continued struggles with poverty.
No single aggregate makes sense in such a diverse area. Yet most global corporations and government agencies inevitably slice and dice the world into regions, thus putting sub-Saharan countries in competition with each other for the attention of the world's big investors and policymakers. Lately, that competition has become especially stiff.
The leaders in the region are not always the obvious ones. There are, of course, some established darlings that are simple to spot. For the ease of doing business as measured by the World Bank, Rwanda, Botswana, and Ghana all look better than several countries in the European Union. Rwanda and Ghana also score highly for protection of property rights -- crucial for attracting foreign investors.
Look below the surface, though, and many other contenders are worthy of investors' attention. The progress in these countries is not so much about the business climate today, or even the level of security or quality of governance. It's more about the economic potential being built for tomorrow. This potential is best measured not by the experiences of corporate managers and consultants who respond to global surveys, but rather the development of human capacity in the next generation of workers and consumers.
In terms of human capacity, there are some striking trends for companies looking to get into sub-Saharan markets on the ground floor. For example, in overall human development as judged by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Madagascar now sits where the Republic of Korea did in 1980, on the cusp of its export boom. And a closer look at the data reveals many more examples of progress.