Even as the bulk of Singapore companies have hemmed and hawed at making a foray into Africa, China has been ramping up its investments there.

The China-Africa Development Fund said this year that it would invest $2.4 billion in African projects. China became Africa's biggest bilateral trading partner in 2009, with the total volume of trade valued at $198.5 billion in 2012. This is expected to breach $380 billion by 2015.

In contrast, Singapore-Africa trade is far more modest and has been rising steadily to reach US$14.1 billion (S$17.5 billion) in 2012.

Such a formidable Chinese presence begs the question: Do Singapore companies even stand a chance in Africa, or have they missed the boat already?

"In my opinion, there is still scope for Singapore companies to venture into Africa," said Djoko Prihanto, senior vice president at Surbana Urban Planning Group. "While China has come with investment, Singapore is known for its integrity, quality and professionalism, so for certain types of professional work the client may still value the Singapore branding."

Added Colin Tan, director and head of research and consultancy at Suntec Real Estate Consultants: "China's strength is in their manufacturing capability and exporting of their construction services. But when it comes to advisory services, their quality and standards are some way behind us."

In large and booming economies such as Nigeria, for instance, Singapore's expertise would be especially valued, according to Bola Adesola, CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Nigeria.

"With a population of over 160 million people and there being a large infrastructure deficit in Nigeria, there are still opportunities that Singaporean companies can tap ... (It) can utilise its expertise in the service industry and focus on IT, finance and petroleum industries, among others."

The Republic's experience in water management is one area Nigerians are keen to learn more about. "There is a need for potable water planning and development in Nigeria and this is a good example of where Singapore's reputation of being one of the most advanced countries in water management can be leveraged," added Ms Adesola.

Rwanda - despite being known for its 1994 genocide that killed at least half a million people - is frequently cited as an ideal investment locale for Singapore businesses.

In fact, President Paul Kagame dreams of his East African nation becoming "the Singapore of Africa". To that end, Rwanda's urban planning authority has enlisted Singapore's expertise in doing masterplanning for the capital city, Kigali.

"We are helping them to formulate the vision for the next 25 years to 2040," said Surbana's Mr Prihanto. "What will Rwanda look like by then? How big will the population be? What should the key economic sectors be? This is what we're doing there."

While Surbana declined to say how much the Rwanda contract was worth, Mr Prihanto said: "Projects in Africa for urban planning are larger in scale and complexity, and command higher consultancy fees than (other) typical planning projects in Asia."

Singapore businessmen say other bright spots include countries such as Angola, Tanzania and Uganda.

"Because of their colonial roots, many of these countries have different investment laws," said Cody Lee, director, Middle East & Africa, Singapore Business Federation (SBF). "But there's not a single country on the continent that I know of that does not allow foreigners to do business there."

With a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) recently signed between IE Singapore and China, Singapore companies looking to penetrate the African market can now partner the China Development Bank, known to be a heavyweight financier of infrastructure projects with extensive networks on the continent.

The agreement will see both countries fostering strategic partnerships between their firms in third-country markets, with an initial focus on Africa and South-east Asia.

"There are many ways Singapore companies can actually leverage China's experience in Africa. For example, Singapore can do the planning for a project and China can chip in to fund and build the project. Both countries can share ownership of the entire thing," said Mr Lee.

He encourages companies to do their research, network with Singapore groups already in Africa and attend business and investment forums organised by IE Singapore and SBF.

"The important thing to remember is that Africa isn't some distant place that Singapore companies should stay far away from. It's not Mars, and people need to realise that."