Africa is often viewed as one holistic (and exotic) continent, but in fact it is made up of many different countries with widely varying economies. One of the few investment options that provide exposure to a broad range of African countries and sectors is the Africa Index ETF (NYSE:AFK). With markets around the world seeing sizable drops, investors may look to Africa as a way to diversify away from the troubles that exist in the developed world's financial systems.

Fund facts
Inception date: July 10, 2008
Expense ratio: 0.83%
Net assets: $5.7 million

Fund specifics
The Africa ETF tracks the Dow Jones Africa Titans 50 Index and currently has exposure to 14 different countries. Although there are now 16 African countries with stock markets, most of them are small, with few listed companies and low liquidity levels. Nevertheless, the capitalization of African stock markets more than doubled between 1992 and 2002, from $113 billion to $245 billion, according to the IMF.

The Africa ETF invests in so-called frontier markets, where few investors have exposure. South Africa and Nigeria make up a quarter each of the Africa ETF's investments, with banking the largest sector at a little over one-third of the fund. Nigeria is one of Africa's top oil-producing countries, and most of the world's major oil companies have operations there, including ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), Chevron (NYSE:CVX), and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A). Meanwhile, South Africa's abundant mineral resources have played a major role for some of the world's largest mining companies, including BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP), Gold Fields International (NYSE:GFI), and Anglo American (NASDAQ:AAUK).

Portfolio fit?
Africa can be a difficult place to conduct business, with high and unexpected costs. In some countries, there is essentially no postal system, and deliveries are conducted on an individual basis. South Africa, one of the most developed African nations, has been experiencing electrical blackouts for several years. Political instability and armed conflict are no strangers to the African continent, while basic utility services can be slow, erratic, or nonexistent. This is not a market for picking individual stocks, since this frontier comes with high risks.

Commodities and energy have been two of the driving forces pushing Africa's economic growth.

Investment from China and India, along with the U.S. and the Persian Gulf States, has also pumped billions of dollars into African countries. Even with a global economic slowdown, the interest in this last great investment frontier is likely to remain strong. Africa has many investment needs ranging from infrastructure to agriculture, yet it is so rich with natural resources that it seems likely to continue to attract investment.

Obviously, if commodities continue to suffer, then you may see at least a temporary slowdown in Africa's growth. Yet with fewer links to the global economy, Africa offers an investment opportunity that is different from what most investors hold in their portfolios -- and in times of trouble, that independence can be a good thing.

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Fool contributor Zoe Van Schyndel lives in the Seattle area, where she enjoys the coffee and natural wonders. She does not own any of the funds or securities mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.