Harley-Davidson opened a subsidiary office in Capetown five years ago and currently has 11 authorized dealers in the sub-Saharan region—nine in South Africa and two on the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Reunion. It plans to open another seven in South Africa next year.
From January 2008 to December 2012, H.O.G (Harley Owners Group) membership rose 70 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. The number of H.O.G chapters rose from nine in 2008 to 17 this year, with a total of 3,589 paid-up H.O.G members through June, according to Harley-Davidson data. Women riders account for 26 percent of sub-Saharan riders when last counted (2012).
"You have to take the full picture," said Celine Gruizinga, country manager at Harley-Davidson Africa. To get a pulse on disposable income, she said, corporations like Harley-Davidson look at how many golf clubs are being swung or how many Prada storefronts are beginning to pop up in particular markets.
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Harley-Davidson took notice of the growing young and black South African demographics attending its Africa Bike Week year after year—a strong sign that demand is growing for motorcycles as a sport. Another sign that riding in Africa is transitioning past practical means of transport to pastime: The Hells Angels has charters in South Africa. U.S.-based Hells Angels spokesman Rick Ciarniello declined to comment on the club's presence in and expansion plans for Africa.
Harley-Davidson's entrance into the African market has been slowed more by its private dealership structure than by its limited consumer appeal. "When I first came in 2011, we worked hard to find investors; it was more difficult to find people to invest in the brand," Gruizinga said.
Nearly three years later things are starting to turn around. Gruizinga said that investors from various sub-Saharan countries are seriously considering getting into the game. Harley-Davidson Africa has recently seen interest from what Gruizinga referred to as "strong potential investors" wanting to invest in Angola and Kenya. "In Angola we have seen there is regular shopping-center investment; consumer spending continues to rise. Certainly, there has been wealth there for a few years now," she said. As the region continues to stabilize, long-term investments in additional east African countries would be considered by Harley.
Honda recently opened a motorcycle plant in Kenya to meet the country's growing demand. According to Kenya's National Bureau of Statistics, bike sales in Africa were up 86 percent by the end of April.
Emerging markets remain a slow-moving vehicle for Harley, though. In the third quarter, the company scored its biggest new-model sales increase in two decades, but EMEA region sales (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) accounted for less than 2 percent of the growth.
Sarah Boumphrey, head of countries and consumers at Euromonitor International, said lack of brand recognition and access to credit and various payment options are among the top challenges that the rising middle class has to overcome. Multinational corporations are well positioned to address these issues and speed up their own return on investment in emerging markets.
"Anybody that is going to come here is not going to make a quick buck," Gruizinga said. "It's no small feat; it's a type of commitment that takes decades."
—By Anthony Volastro, Segment Producer, CNBC. Follow him on Twitter