By Kester Kenn Klomegah
Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that trade between Russia and Africa would grow further as more and more African partners continued to show interest in having Russians in the economic sectors in Africa.
“Our African partners are interested in Russian business working more actively there. This provides greater competition between the companies from Western countries, China, and Russia. With competition for developing mineral resources in Africa, it is easier and cheaper for our African colleagues to choose partners,” he told the staff and students at Moscow State Institute of International Affairs early September.
Soviet Union and Africa had very close and, in many respects, allied relations with most of the African countries during the decolonization of Africa. For obvious reasons, the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. As a result, Russia has to struggle through many internal and external difficulties. The past few years, it is still struggling to survive both the United States and European sanctions.
“Of course, relations with many foreign countries have faded into the background compared with the challenges the country had to deal with in order to preserve its statehood. As we regained our statehood and control over the country, and the economy and the social sphere began to develop, Russian businesses began to look at promising projects abroad, and we began to return to Africa. This process has been ongoing for the past 15 years,” Lavrov further said about post-Soviet Russia’s relations with Africa.
“Overall, we are, of course, far from the absolute figures characterizing trade and investment cooperation between the African countries and, say, China. However, our trade grew by 17 percent over the past year (which is a sizable number) to over $20 billion and it continues to grow,” he informed the fully-packed auditorium.
Five years ago, precisely in May 2014, Lavrov said in a speech posted to the official website: “we attach special significance to deepening our trade and investment cooperation with the African States. Russia provides African countries with extensive preferences in trade. At the same time, it is evident that the significant potential of our economic cooperation is far from being exhausted and much remains to be done so that Russian and African partners know more about each other’s capacities and needs.”
Reports, however, show that Russia has started strengthening its economic cooperation by opening trade missions with the responsibility of providing sustainable business services and plans to facilitate import-export trade in a number of African countries. Besides all that, Russia has embarked on “Doing Business in Africa” campaign to encourage Russian businesses to take advantage of growing trade and investment opportunities in Africa.
Statistics on Africa’s trade with foreign countries vary largely. For example, the total United States two-way trade in Africa has actually fallen off in recent years, to about $60 billion, far eclipsed by the European Union with over $200 billion, and also China more than US$200 billion, according to Africa in Focus post by the Brookings Institution.
According to the African Development Bank, Africa’s economy is growing faster than those of any other regions. Nearly half of Africa’s countries are now classified as middle income countries, the numbers of Africans living below the poverty line fell to 39 percent as compared to 51 percent in 2016, and around 350 million of Africa’s one billion people are now earning good incomes – rising consumerism – that makes trade profitable.
As far back in October 2007, Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry posted an official report on its website that traditional products from least developed countries (including Africa) would be exempted from import tariffs. The legislation stipulates that the traditional goods are eligible for preferential customs and tariffs treatment.
While Russia announced this preferential tariff regime for developing countries, which also granted duty-free access for African products, potential African exporters either failed to take advantage of it or were unaware of the advantageous terms for boosting trade.
Analyzing the present market landscape of Africa, Russia can export its technology and compete on equal terms with China, India and other prominent players. On the other hand, Russia lacks the competitive advantage in terms of finished industrial (manufactured) products that African consumers obtain from Asian countries such as China, India, Japan and South Korea.
Charles Robertson, Global Chief Economist at Renaissance Capital, thinks that the major problem is incentives. China has two major incentives to invest in Africa. First, China needs to buy resources, while Russia does not. Second, Chinese exports are suitable for Africa – whether it is textiles or iPads, goods made in China can be sold in Africa. Russia exports little except oil and has (roughly 2/3 of exports), steel and metals (which is either not cost effective to sell in Africa, or again is the same as Africa is selling) and military weapons.
Keir Giles, an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, told me that “there are some more fundamental problems which Russia would need to overcome to boost its trade turnover with the region. The majority of this vast amount of trade with China simply cannot be competed with by Russia. A large part of African exports to China by value is made up of oil, which Russia does not need to import. And a large part of China’s exports to Africa are consumer goods, which Russia doesn’t really produce.”
He explains further that trade in foodstuffs in both directions suffers similar challenges, which are unlikely to be affected by the current politically-motivated Russian ban on foods from the European Union, the United States and Australia. In effect, in sharp contrast to China, the make-up of Russian exports has not really developed since the end of the Soviet Union and still consists mostly of oil, gas, arms and raw materials. For as long as that continues, the scope for ongoing trading with most African nations is going to be severely limited.
Academic experts, who have researched Russia’s foreign policy in Africa, at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for African Studies, have reiterated that Russia’s exports to Africa can be possible only after the country’s industrial based experiences a more qualitative change and introducing tariff preferences for trade with African partners.
“The situation in Russian-African foreign trade will change for the better, if Russian industry undergoes rapid technological modernization, the state provides Russian businessmen systematic and meaningful support, and small and medium businesses receive wider access to foreign economic cooperation with Africa,” according to Professor Aleksey Vasiliyev, President of the Institute for African Studies and the first appointed Special Presidential Representative to Africa.
Quite recently, Dr. Gideon Shoo, Media Business Consultant based in Kilimanjaro Region in Tanzania, explained in an interview discussion with me that Russian companies need to prove their superiority in the business spheres and African governments have to make it easier for Russian companies to set up and operate in their countries.
“Russian financial institutions can offer credit support that will allow them to localize their production in Africa’s industrial zones, especially southern and eastern African regions that show some stability and have good investment and business incentives. In order to operate more effectively, Russians have to risk by investing, recognize the importance of cooperation on key investment issues and to work closely on the challenges and opportunities on the continent,” he added.
On the other hand, Dr. Shoo noted that Russia is, so far, a closed market to many African countries. It is difficult to access the Russian market. However, African countries have to look to new emerging markets for export products, make efforts to negotiate for access to these markets. This can be another aspect of the economic cooperation and great business opportunity for both regions.
Nearly all the experts have acknowledged here that import and export trade have been slow due to multiple reasons including inadequate knowledge of trade procedures, complicated certification procedures, expensive logistics, security and guarantee issues, rules and regulations as well as the existing market conditions.
By looking at and revising the rules and regulations, the situation about Russia’s presence in Africa and Africa’s presence in Russia could change. All that is necessary here is for Russia and Africa to make consistent efforts to look for new ways, practical efforts at removing existing obstacles that have impeded trade over the years.
For decades, Russia has been looking for effective ways to promote multifaceted ties and new strategies for cooperation in economic areas in Africa. Now, Kremlin will hold the first Russia-Africa Summit with high hopes of enhancing multifaceted ties, trying to reshape the existing relationships and significantly roll out ways to increase effectiveness of cooperation between Russia and Africa.
During the past decades, a number of foreign countries notably China, the United States, European Union, India, France, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea have held gatherings of this kind in that format. The idea to hold a Russia-Africa Summit was initiated by President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Johannesburg in July 2018.
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