Mention Africa and many regular people will think of poverty. Increasingly however, businesspeople and experts are thinking opportunity. The greater the risks, some say, the greater the returns.

Long hindered by the presence of, and reputation for, corruption, civil and political unrest, and underdevelopment, Africa's business obstacles are slowly beginning to fall away. The World Bank's 2009 Doing Business Indicators, which tracked national reforms to bring business environments up to international standards in 2007 and 2008, listed three African nations in the top 10 reformers worldwide (Burkina Faso, Senegal and Botswana).

Such signs come at a time when experts are making comparisons between the continent and the BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India and China], whose reforms and integration with the world economy led to massive growth rates.

"You could think of sub-Saharan Africa as maybe India 30 years ago, not even as long ago as 30 years," said Baldwin Berges, director of business development at Silk Invest, a UK-based financial services company. "There's always a lag between reality and perception. Look at Brazil 15 years ago."

Of course, most African nations cannot yet claim 'emerging markets' status, but further investment and development may push them into the category. Gijon Jose, head of the Middle East and Africa Desk at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), describes African economies as "Frontier Economies". That means, says Jose, they have all the necessary characteristics of emerging markets, but aren't quite there yet. "We believe in 10 to 15 years they could be emerging markets," said Jose.

Africa's hefty population and enviable stores of natural resources spread across a huge land mass are likely to be key to making that shift. Silk Invest are encouraging clients to pool money into the continent. Berges points to a number of indicators that make investments seem wise, but the strongest, he says, is population growth. "They have population growth which brings economic growth," he explained.

Africa lays claim to 14 per cent of the world's population, points out a company report on investing in the region. It also forecasts GDP growth in sub-Saharan Africa to be 1 per cent in 2009 and 3.7 per cent in 2010, with North Africa's 2009 growth predicted to be 3.3 per cent and 4.1 in 2010. Those figures are set against world GDP growth of -2.9 per cent in 2009 and 2 per cent in 2010.

This increase in income is becoming evident through a bourgeoning middle class across the continent, which, coupled with an increasing integration in the world's economy, opens doors for many sectors to yield returns on investment.

Exporting ranks highly as holding potential for growth. "In these economies, any investment in infrastructure could have a huge effect," said Jose. "If you allow them to upscale and to massively increase the export potential, that can have a huge effect," Jose said.

As Africa positions itself as an exporter, it is finding customers in existing emerging markets who are keen to find suppliers. Jose points to China as an example. "Every year in China they are incorporating around 20 million people into their cities. These people need heat, housing and commodities ... Africa will provide these."

Global efforts to invest in Eastern Africa's port infrastructure of late have been notable. In May, the European Investment Bank signed an agreement with Mozambique for a 65 million euros (Dh344.5 million) loan to develop Beira port and rail network.

Dubai-based DP World has also invested heavily in Africa recently, and now operates six terminals across the continent which they are upscaling to accommodate large traffic flows. Such developments can spur another sector with a formidable potential - food.

There is indeed extensive arable land in Eastern Africa, and those countries point out that foreign direct investment in agriculture would boost their productivity to viable levels in order to supply GCC nations.

"The most important trade from East Africa to the Gulf is going to be agriculture," stressed Jose.

"They can't eat their dollars," said Ali Ahmad Saleh, Tanzania's Consul General in Dubai. "What we have, they don't, and what they have, we don't. The only setback in this part of the world, including Tanzania, is the capital to develop the resources," said Saleh.

"In Tanzania we have room for the food security aspect - we have about 40 million hectares of arable land. Only about 10 per cent of this land is being utilised."

Mining is another sector which a number of African nations are making moves to promote throughout the global economy. The port developments in Mozambique are intended to accommodate growing coal exports. In other African countries, particularly in the South and South East, mining commodities in general are providing room for investment.

Mozambique has signed an agreement with Brazilian mining giant, Vale, to extract and export coal, said Jose Matsinha, Consul General of Mozambique in Dubai. Other investors include Australia's Riversdale Mining, and Coal India. "From the UAE we have ETA [Emirates Trading Agency] investing in coal mining," he said. "ETA has the potential to expand in the area of coal. You have to be more active. We have natural reserves to accommodate more investors."

South Africa has witnessed Gulf interest in mining also, said Agnes Nyamande-Pitso, Consul General of South Africa in Dubai, with coal and gold proving popular. "Now we have people coming into South Africa to negotiate deals to invest in gold bullions and diamonds. That is on the increase also," she said.

While evidence suggests opportunities are there for Gulf investors, officials say political weight needs to get behind such moves to see real economic integration at speed. "Frankly speaking, without the political will, without the political impetus, things don't go," said Saleh. Many experts believe institutional frameworks for economic cooperation are essential for swift, efficient initiatives.

Last year, the President of the World Bank Group, Robert Zoellick, gave a speech on "new multilateralism", saying the multilateral network needs to encourage governments to search for mutual interests as a means by which to promote a shared sense of responsibility in enacting reform. Saleh points out that business communities from China to India, are buoyed by political frameworks which look to steer capital into lucrative investment gaps.

"The question has been the full realisation of cooperation," said Saleh.

"The important aspect here is to develop an institutional framework of cooperation between the Gulf countries and Africa."

While financial deals with GCC businessmen are done on a relatively case-by-case basis, there exist forums and initiatives between Africa and other nations. "This has been done between India and Africa, they have the Indo-Africa Forum," said Saleh. "We have the Sino-Africa Forum, we have TIFC [the Tokyo Initiative for Cooperation]. We have now the Turkish Africa Forum. These people have come up with this framework. But for us, with the Gulf it's a freelancing sort of structure."

Earlier this year however, noted Saleh, increasing interest was shown in Africa by the Abu Dhabi government, when they took a trip to 14 nations.

As part of the IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) campaign, Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Foreign Minister, took a business delegation to explore opportunities in Africa. What was a significant step forward, added the Consul General, was that they returned with technical teams to look more closely at possible investments.

One reason some may give for steering their capital away from Africa is the high risk many perceive from the often turbulent continent. But others believe it's worth it. "By investing in those countries that have a higher risk there is a greater return," said Jose. "You arrive there and you invest and find you are the only player in town."