LONDON -- It hasn't yet attained investment fad status, but there are signs that the fund management world sees Africa as "The Next Big Thing." The latest launch is Baring's Frontier Markets Fund, which will allocate a quarter of assets to Sub-Saharan Africa and over half to the "Middle East and North Africa" region.

The investment argument is familiar: a burgeoning population of young people with increasing personal incomes, and resource-rich to boot. It's high risk, so diversification through a fund could be a sensible way of getting exposure.

We've been here before,  as investors in the New Star Heart of Africa Fund -- which lasted all of a year before it failed -- can attest. Corruption has generally been the rock on which Africa's economy has foundered.

Different this time
It may be different this time. The reason is the massive investment that China is making on the continent -- to the degree that some African leaders are describing it as empire-building. While Western aid has been frittered away, I doubt the Chinese will be quite so laissez faire. The two factors, African demographics and the realpolitik of Chinese influence, are a potent combination.

However, I think there's a shrewder way to play the theme, through companies that have large and growing African operations. There are several in the FTSE 100, such as:

1. SABMiller
Premium alcoholic beverages are flourishing in Africa. Diageo sells more Guinness in Nigeria than anywhere else. SABMiller's (LSE: SAB) South African base has helped it become the world's second-largest brewer. The country still accounts for a quarter of sales and the brewer is expanding across the continent as African consumers turn to recognized brands.

2. Old Mutual
Also originating out of South Africa, the life assurer Old Mutual (OMU -0.41%) is coy about how much of its business derives from the continent, though emerging markets produce about half its business. It has allocated capital to expand in Sub-Saharan Africa, which it identifies as having the fastest growth rates in insurance and long-term savings. Such products appeal once people have disposable incomes.

3. Barclays
' (BARC 0.56%) (BCS 0.12%) strategic review singled out Africa, with the U.K. and U.S., as one of three geographic areas on which to focus investment. Africa was described as "the primary emerging market opportunity over the medium to long term for Barclays."

Even before the strategic review, CEO Antony Jenkins demonstrated his commitment by consolidating the bank's disparate African interests. He's not alone: Standard Chartered has said it wants to double African revenues in five years.

Exposure to frontier markets can add some spice to your portfolio but only makes sense alongside a core of solid, dependable stocks. The Motley Fool has picked five shares that fit this bill, all companies that have dominant market positions, healthy balance sheets, and reliable cash flows. To find out which they are, you can download the analysis by clicking here -- it's free.