A new trajectory for India-Africa ties
India now sees Africa as a promising market for Indian goods, services, and investments. This is evident in the government’s recent concerted focus on the India-Africa relationship—high profile visits by top leaders to African countries, a recasting of India’s development diplomacy, and an attempt to match action to past promises
India’s relationship with Africa has been through an unprecedented intensification in June 2016. In the first week of the month, Vice President Hamid Ansari visited Tunisia and Morocco. In the second week, President Pranab Mukherjee embarked on a tour of western and southern Africa, covering Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Namibia. And in July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, and South Africa.
The present renewed outreach is also unabashedly about business, and a good example of geo-politics combining with geo-economics. India views Africa as a promising market for Indian goods, services, and investments. So far though, any follow-up on promises had remained anaemic. Now, Indian leaders are seeking out fresh investment opportunities for Indian public and private sector companies in different African countries.
The vice president’s visits to Morocco and Tunisia are crucial because India imports phosphate—a critical raw material for fertiliser production—from these countries. Ansari also inaugurated an India-Morocco Chamber of Commerce during his trip to Rabat.
The president’s three-country tour provided an opportunity to further India’s business interests. At the India-Ghana Business Forum, Mukherjee said: “…the Indian Government would be ready to work with you in key sectors and areas of common interest and encourage Indian private as well as public entrepreneurs to bring more investments into Ghana.” India’s cumulative investments in Ghana are over $1 billion and two-way trade during 2015-16 amounted to $3 billion.
In Cote d’Ivoire, Mukherjee said: “…your country is blessed with fertile soil and abundant agricultural and mineral resources. Our public and private sectors are keen to join you in exploring these resources efficiently and in setting up agro-based industries.”
At the same time, India’s development diplomacy for the continent has been through a strategic shift. Exim Bank, for example, is now likely to focus more on service exports, rather than compete with China for infrastructure projects in Africa.
The bank is looking to disburse close to Rs. 10,000 crores in Africa over the next three years as both commercial and concessional credit. Service exports aim to build on India’s traditional strengths in Africa and will include healthcare, education, and information technology services. Exim inaugurated an office in Cote d’Ivoire during Mukherjee’s visit. The office is expected to widen the bank’s footprint in West Africa.
Exim Bank is also looking to sharpen its focus on another area of India’s traditional exports to Africa: project exports. It has requested the Reserve Bank of India to ease regulatory and compliance guidelines regarding minimum equity capital, leverage (the multiples—3X, 4X or 8X—of share capital that a company can borrow) and the maximum that the bank can lend to a single borrower. These will be necessary if the bank is to make project exports one of its thrust areas.
These actions are in line with promises made during the Third India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) in October 2015. The first two editions of the summit—in 2008 and 2011—made numerous pledges but fell short on follow-up and delivery. Both sides were responsible for the indifferent implementation.
The last IAFS, held in October 2015, saw a strategic shift in focus—apart from the usual rhetoric, there was a better alignment of India’s global ambitions (both political and geo-economic) and traditional strengths. Importantly, the third IAFS created a formal monitoring mechanism to regularly review the progress of various projects at different stages of completion.
The summit aimed high—it also sought to create a global alliance of solar-rich countries. Such an alliance will help create goodwill for India among Africa countries, and generate solidarity through collective bargaining when accessing IPR-protected technology from rich countries.
It’s starting with this summit that Modi has been building bridges with different African countries and soliciting support for a host of multilateral initiatives. These include backing for India’s membership of the UN Security Council along with a united front of emerging and poor economies at the World Trade Organisation.
The high-octane official Africa engagements will also help assuage concerns regarding India after recent allegedly racist incidents involving African nationals living in the country. But it is now up to India to ensure that its belated recognition of the critical role Africa can play in our strategic calculus, as well as in India’s trade and investment expansion plans, is not just a temporary spurt.
Rajrishi Singhal is Senior Geoeconomics Fellow, Gateway House. He has been a senior business journalist, and Executive Editor, The Economic Times, and served as Head, Policy and Research, at a private sector bank, before shifting to consultancy and policy analysis.