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Fitness, Consumer Sectors Thriving in Middle East, North Africa

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In the last week of October, on the same day as a bomb blast in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula—one of the deadliest insurgencies, reportedly, in decades—killed close to 30 Egyptian soldiers, Ramona Braganza, a fitness trainer from Canada, was working out with a group of 30 young people at the Dreamlands Golds Gym in Cairo.

The gym had invited Braganza, who has trained such celebrities as Halle Berry, Jessica Alba and Dominic Cooper,  to teach a week-long course based on her “3-2-1” fitness method.

“It’s my understanding that there’s a growing interest in fitness training here,” Braganza said. “The gym has only been open for a short while and already has 3,000 members.”

That’s not surprising given the way things are changing in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region and the fitness sector is one of a number of consumer oriented sectors that are experiencing strong growth there. The countries of the region – in particular those that went through the Arab Spring – face many challenges, but there’s little doubt that interests and tastes are rapidly changing across MENA, said Pervez Akhtar, corporate partner and head of law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s MENA practice, and this shift is leading to a rise in private equity investments in the region.

“The MENA region is going through a boom with respect to population and also with pent-up demand for consumer goods and services,” Akhtar said. “You’ve got lots of young people who are saying ‘we want better schools for our kids, better universities, we want fashion, different kinds of food and we want to have leisure activities like sports and fitness as well.”

These societal shifts are increasingly enticing private equity funds, looking for new opportunities, toward MENA. Big name players such as KKR, Carlyle and Blackstone, which recently did its first ever transaction in the region by investing with Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund in GEMs, the biggest provider of education in the United Arab Emirates,  are entering MENA, Akhtar said, adding that they will play an increasingly important role in financing transactions going forward by teaming up with local players, sovereign wealth funds and the like.

Akhtar recently advised the Dubai-based Abraaj Group on a private equity transaction in the Egyptian health care sector, he said, and he has a number of other deals in the pipeline both for MENA as well as for Africa, which is also a growing hotspot for private equity firms, global as well as local (last year, for example, the Abraaj Group acquired a 100% stake in Fan Milk International, West Africa’s leading manufacturer and distributor of frozen dairy products and juices). Sports and fitness are a subset of the general boom in the consumer sector and still an area in development. For countries like Egypt and Tunisia, what’s more important right now is building up basic consumer sectors like healthcare and education, Akhtar said, and that’s where the private equity cash is headed.

However, once the fundamentals are in place, things will change, particularly since the United Arab Emirates, Dubai in particular, is quite oversaturated as a market for gyms and fitness training, according to Gillian Brunton, Dubai-based managing director for InnerG Solutions, a health and wellness consultancy. As time goes on and as disposable income grows, these markets will offer potential, she said, particularly since countries like Egypt have a very young population that is looking toward the West.

That said, though, private equity firm Swicorp last year made an investment in Fitness One, a leading health and fitness company based in Jordan, as part of its strategy of supporting local entrepreneurs with regional growth ambitions in sectors the firm believes have strong long-term fundamentals.

“Private equity clients are looking for deals where they can achieve some scale and right now, the consumer sector is really starting to take off in MENA in a number of different ways,” Akhtar said. “When you look at the growth opportunities in places like Europe, they’re pretty limited, whereas when you invest in MENA, you get above double digit returns. Even during the global downturn, private equity investors were achieving returns of 4% to 5% on deals, so the region clearly offers tremendous opportunities on returns for investment. This will also grow based on the historical pent up demand for consumer goods in particular, and because you have a young population that has become wealthier and wants to have all the products everyone else in the West has.”