Africa’s stunning lack of basic services, such as electrical and telephone grids and Internet connectivity, might cause many to despair, but Euvin Naidoo — a leading advocate for Western investment in the underdeveloped continent — looks at the map and sees something different: hope.

Naidoo, president and CEO of the South African Chamber of Commerce in America, noted that with the world pushing for alternative sources of energy such as windmills or geothermal power, it will be easier to develop and implement these new technologies from scratch in Africa than to impose them on the entrenched power grid in the West. “The key about disruptive technology is that it really has a chance to innovate at the base of the pyramid,” Naidoo said in his keynote address at the 15th annual Wharton Africa Business Forum. “The base of the pyramid is the bottom — the millions who are underserved.”

Indeed, the Harvard Business School-trained South African said that adopting this glass-half-full, optimistic approach suggests there are numerous opportunities for new technologies to flourish among 900 million Africans who have steadily lagged behind the rest of the developed world so far.

Naidoo showed his audience a map of global Internet connectivity, with bloated depictions of web-savvy western nations from Japan to Portugal to the United States. But the massive African landmass is virtually invisible. He insisted that the African void today represents a massive future opportunity for an entrepreneur who can develop a scalable solution for multiple nations on a continent that is currently divided into 53 different governments.

“Africa is in … a unique position. It almost has a competitive advantage due to that very situation of not having the connectivity, of not having the electricity grid,” Naidoo said. He cited the example of windmills as a low cost and innovative power solution that would work better in a local, start-up situation, such as a remote African village, than it would in the West, with all its regulatory and economic obstacles.

The upbeat tone of Naidoo’s keynote speech was very much in keeping with the theme of the annual Wharton conference. The overall intent was to keep the focus less on the seemingly crushing problems of Africa that tend to dominate headlines — including an AIDS epidemic, massive debt, government corruption and brutal warfare — and more on the less-publicized signs of an economic turnaround.

With little fanfare, Africa’s gross national product has been growing at a rate of roughly 5% a year — a pace expected to accelerate between now and the end of the decade. Foreign investment in the continent, meanwhile, has doubled since 1998, a trend that has been punctuated this year by China’s multi-billion dollar investment in South Africa’s largest bank and its sizable loan to the Congo.

Indeed, some investors are seeing opportunities in Africa on a scale comparable to the other emerging markets in Asia or Eastern Europe that have proved so lucrative over the past decade, noted Naidoo. He said that according to Stephen Jennings, the billionaire founder of Moscow brokerage Renaissance Capital, Russia’s emergence was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that “Africa is a second once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” (According to media reports earlier this year, Jennings is doubling his investment in Africa to $1 billion.)

A Political Version of Chapter 11

Yet Naidoo — a fourth-generation South African whose organization was recently highlighted by the Clinton Global Initiative — acknowledged that despite the investment rush, the image of the continent still lags. To dramatize that problem, he showed the audience a standard classroom map of the world and then an actual satellite image, proving that Africa is actually much larger than commonly depicted in the West. In reality, the United States, continental Europe and China could fit inside the African land mass, with some room to spare.

In fact, he noted, public dialogue about Africa has changed little since October 1960, when then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy said: “If we are to create an atmosphere in Africa in which freedom can flourish — where long-enduring people can hope for a better life for themselves and their children, where men are winning the fight against ignorance and hunger and disease — then we must embark on a bold and imaginative new program for its development.”

“I found it very interesting that a great man almost 50 years ago could be transported in time — and we face challenges very similar to what was described back then,” Naidoo said. In fact, he has devoted much of his career as a student and then an investment banker to trying to put a different face on Africa and its chances for what he calls “a turnaround” — beginning with his Harvard Business School case study, a look at South African leader Nelson Mandela’s career from a business perspective.

As late as 1987, the British government still considered the African National Congress of Mandela — then languishing in prison — as a terrorist organization. But by 1994, then-Prime Minister John Major was hailing Mandela, released and elected the nation’s president, as a statesman. “We wanted to pick an African story that would show Wall Street and the West great news from Africa, so we picked a leader we felt would have lessons across sectors, from the public sector to the private sector, and across continents, from Africa to the rest of the world,” Naidoo said of his Mandela case study. South Africa, he added, was in a political version of Chapter 11, with bickering parties and key personnel anxious to leave, before Mandela restored the nation’s image and prestige.

Since that study, Naidoo said he has gained considerable new insight into the specific development strategies that hold the greatest promise for bringing a broader reversal of fortune to the entire continent. He showed a graphic comparing types of investment strategies to native animals of Africa, with special praise for what he called the “speedy gazelles.”

Businesses, like mobile phone companies and regional logistical initiatives, are “highly scalable. They move from one area to the other and are very active and on-the-move,” like gazelles. Indeed, the African entrepreneur whom Naidoo holds in especially high regard is mobile telephone mogul Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-born executive who started African-based Celtel in 1998 and sold it to the investment arm of Kuwait for $3.4 billion just seven years later. Naidoo said that Ibrahim’s genius was to successfully achieve an economy of scale in 15 African nations at the same time, while maintaining his integrity.

“Mo had a premise of never being corrupted, of never accepting bribes, of never tolerating less than the best,” Naidoo stated. “The context was that he rose on the winds of change” — including seeing a successful exit strategy by capitalizing on what are becoming known as “sovereign wealth funds,” which invest the excess cash of nations with a huge trade surplus.

Although these new sovereign wealth funds remain just a fraction of more traditional private investment funds, their influence is expected to grow in the near future, from about $2.2 billion in annual investments now to roughly $5 billion over the next decade, according to Naidoo. The largest of these sovereign funds are either linked to oil wealth — the biggest is that of the United Arab Emirates — or other countries with a cash surplus, including China. For strategic reasons, these government-tied wealth funds are finding Africa attractive.

In keeping with the tone of the speech, Naidoo didn’t dwell extensively on the widely publicized challenges that Africa faces, including high rates of AIDS and HIV infection, malaria and other diseases, not to mention a lack of infrastructure that results in inadequate roads and poor public drinking water. But he did acknowledge that in focusing on the problem of economy of scale — which he sees as critical to new development in Africa — the continent’s array of notoriously corrupt rulers will need to reform. “For scale to take place, governance becomes crucial,” Naidoo said. “Because when we scale, the rule of law, the institutions, the infrastructure become really, really important.”

To accomplish that, Africa is also going to need an investment of human capital — particularly African-born leaders who are being educated or who have now migrated to the United States or elsewhere in the Western world. He made it clear that one of the reasons he so admires Ibrahim is that he never forgot his roots in the continent as he pursued his entrepreneurial vision.

In his role as CEO of the South African Chamber of Commerce in America, Naidoo is currently working to develop and promote a quarterly “African platform” in New York City, with the first one to be held in February. This kind of constant communication among interested parties, like those in his audience at Wharton, will be critical for the continent’s future. “We are on the cusp of a lot of exciting things,” Naidoo said. “It’s going to take a lot of communication. Do not be a bystander: This is the time.”