MILAN — Luxury goods brands better start paying attention to sub-Saharan Africa, according to Fondazione Altagamma.

During a presentation of its latest Market Focus in Milan, the association mapped out risks and opportunities of business development in that part of the world and panelists warned against a wait-and-see approach. “Invest now. Go in early , create strong relations, build loyalty,” said Silvana Bottega, chief executive officer of the Southern Africa Luxury Association. “The first market-movers are the ones that will succeed. Imagine if we hadn’t believed in China. It’s the same here. ”

Luigi Cantone, ceo of the Europe, Middle East and Africa region and business development director of Gianni Versace SpA, said that the region “does not replace China but is very satisfactory.”

He underscored that it was “very important to be well-represented there as most Africans spend in Europe,” and said that 50 percent of Versace consumers in Lisbon come from Angola, for example. The company is soon opening another boutique at Lisbon’s airport. Versace is present in Africa through partners. “It’s still a niche, but because we are a global brand we had to be there. Consumers [from the region] are growing and so is their spending power,” said Cantone, adding that “many Nigerians shop in Milan.” While the majority of these consumers are still men, women are starting to emerge, mainly buying bags and shoes.

Armando Sanguini, scientific councilor of ISPI [Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale], which studies international politics, said that “China targeted this continent already 20 years ago,” initiating “an exchange model of raw materials for infrastructures.” He urged Italy to aim at target countries with focused operations. He underscored the mosaic-like structure of the region, the relevance of a growing middle class and increasing consumer spending as the number of military regimes declines. He acknowledged there are still critical areas, including a lack of infrastructures.

“I would like to highlight that Africa is saying that by 2017 there will be a continental area of free trade. Already 26 countries in Oriental Africa endorse free trade. You must be on the territory for business and Italy is lagging behind,” said Sanguini.

He observed that, in addition to South Africa, Angola and Nigeria, where 70 million people are already connected on the Internet, “at least” 12 other countries, including Ghana, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mauritius have significant growth potential. “In Nigeria, there are 180 million people and 120 million are aged below 30,” he noted.

To be sure, Armando Branchini, the foundation’s vice president , said that South Africa, Nigeria and Angola together account for more than 50 percent of Italy’s exports to sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa is pivotal, but per capita gross domestic product grew 91 and 121 percent in Nigeria and Angola, respectively, in the 2000 to 2013 period.

Prospects for 2020 “for beautiful and well-made products are positive, with a growth of 107 million euros ($120.5 million at current exchange) in South Africa, 59 million euros ($66.4 million) in Nigeria and 28 million euros ($31.5 million) in Angola,” said Branchini. Critical issues are distribution infrastructure and the limited number of locations for monobrand stores. The digital channel is seen as especially helpful for South Africa. Discussing a chart of main markets, he pointed to Johannesburg with 23,000 millionaires and noted that South Africa spends $14.6 billion on clothing and shoes; Nigeria spends $4.8 billion, and Angola $1.5 billion.

Alessandro Terzulli, chief economist of SACE, the insurance and financial group active in export credit, highlighted the growing young population of sub-Saharan Africa, the expansion of a middle class, and the potential for Made in Italy products positioned in the medium-high range, especially in South Africa, Angola and Nigeria.

“It will be fundamental for Italian firms to be present in these markets, while taking into account the risks,” said Terzulli. He explained that “the increase of commodity prices has determined more investments, cancelled debts and allowed access to international bond markets.” He also pointed to more peaceful areas and urbanization, trade between regions and the development of information and communications technology.

The next Fondazione Altagamma Market Focus will study South East Asia and be presented in November.