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Why India Must Guard Against China’s Growing ‘Interest’ in Africa

The 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma should be a crucial juncture for India to recalibrate its ties with the other significant continent that hosted Gandhi’s first satyagraha, and came as the inflection point in India’s independence movement. Africa. The imagery of Wakanda in Black Panther (2018) awoke a lot of us to the untapped potential of Africa, by presenting a stark imagery to the one portrayed by mainstream media, which unfortunately had led to most of us still subscribing to tropes like a famine-hit Savannah, or a war-ravaged landscape. But with thousands of miles separating India and Africa, imagining the way of life in the land of the sun is all but impossible.

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How the India-Africa Equation is Panning Out

Africa has long been dictated by the global order in terms of money, power and intellect. In the words of Joseph Shabalala, founder of the South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Africa has to unlearn looking down on itself, steer clear from the propaganda of the West, and garner conviction from its indigenous methods of working and living.

By 2050, Africa would have the world’s largest workforce with more than half of the population under 25 years.

The demographic dividend fuels hope towards the progressive strides that Africa can make, but not without support and collaboration from existing market leaders and emerging players.

India-Africa ties will be one of the most sought-after relations rocketing towards a global growth spurt in the 21st century.

The bilateral trade between the two countries has grown from USD 7.2 billion in 2001 to USD 63 billion in 2017-18.

Many of the African countries benefit from India’s investments in the transfer of affordable technology, investment in infrastructure such as roads, dams, rural electrification, and solar energy.

In her Ted Talk, former World Bank consultant Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu spoke about essential changes to the foundation elements in Africa, like a much-needed overhaul of the existing education system. It is key to remove the abstraction of the Western education system which neither serves to facilitate the learner to better appreciate his or her surroundings, nor the capacity building to add value to it.

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China’s Race to Africa

With innovations in boosting its domestic methods of production and consumption of resources, Africa is slowly inching its way to becoming an active global player. India has also supported capacity-building through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation Programme, and launched initiatives such as Pan Africa e-Vidya Bharati and e-Arogya Bharati Network Project, among others. Exim Bank of India has also extended Lines of Credit to countries in Africa.

However, China’s growing interest in Africa has left all others behind. 

Spotting similarities between China and Africa, Alibaba founder Jack Ma spoke at length at the 2019 Forbes Global CEO Conference, about the need to invest in African education and entrepreneurship. He initiated the Netpreneur Prize which aims to build a community of 100 young, African entrepreneurs by 2030, who will receive grants totaling USD 10 million. On the other hand, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to invest a further USD 60 billion into African nations. Overall Chinese investments and contracts in sub-Saharan Africa came to a whopping USD 299 billion in the period from 2005 to 2018, according to the China Investment Global Tracker.

China’s Debt-Trap Diplomacy & Its Ties With Africa

China’s debt-trap diplomacy is actively at play with USD 130 billion given in loans to African nations since 2000. China is also investing heavily in African media landscape and training African journalists to present itself in the best light possible. In 2012, China established CCTV Africa, renamed it as China Global Television Network (CGTN) Africa in 2016 and in 2018 made it a part of the Voice of China media group, an English-language news channel run by the Chinese state broadcaster.

It was the first international investment in a USD 6.6 billion global plan to strengthen China’s global presence in the continent.

Almost simultaneously within Africa, there has been a wave of Afrofuturism that has emerged as an alternative to the global media landscape, with independent African artists reclaiming the interweave of the rich African culture with futuristic technology. Afrofuturism is most commonly described as a black perspective on “the politics, aesthetics and cultural aspects” of science, science fiction and technology. It has become the tool to shift paradigms between the past, present and the future to allow the blacks to operate in liberation from the colonial horrors of the past or even the present neo-colonial corporate powers of the West.

Start-Up Culture & ‘Afrofuturism’

The booming start-up culture in Africa borrows heavily from Afrofuturism as an influence to move towards sustainable forms of commerce. 2018 Venture Investment Report by WeeTracker shows that there was an almost four-fold increase in total startup funding received for African startups in 2018 with USD 725.6 million across 458 deals.

While a major driving force for most start-ups globally is to aim for initial public offering (IPOs), the entrepreneurial spirit in Africa wants to change the country by tackling the regional and as well as global integration. 3D printers generated from e-waste, Mellowcabs, a brand of electric mini taxis and MamaOpe (Mother’s hope), a biomedical smart jacket whose sensors pick up sound patterns from the lungs, temperature and breathing rate, computes data and sends the diagnosis on a mobile app, are just some of the examples that created ripples in sustainable innovation in Africa.

Global leaders of the current market order have understood the dire need to engage with the African labour market and train them to mould the workforce of the future.

The recently-released World Development Report talks about a US company which has built its business model on the digitisation of Africa, and has trained 20,000 software programmers across Africa using free online learning tools. Once qualified, programmers will work with the firm directly or join its other clients across the world. The company aims to train 100,000 African software developers by 2024. India needs to jump onto this bandwagon and cement labour ties, technology-sharing and market practices with Africa.

How to Boost India-Africa Trade & Bilateral Relations

Recently the Indian business community based in Africa brought a slew of issues to the Commerce Ministry’s notice such as, improving line of credit system, setting up of banks and liberalise visa policies to increase trade and investment with Africa. Some of the other possible initiatives could be starting direct flights between India and the African countries; creation of common database of buyer-suppliers; development of a robust trade dispute settlement mechanism; and establishment of country chapters of FICCI or CII in Africa. These issues could be highlighted at forums like the India-Africa Summit. Hopefully the fourth summit scheduled for 2020 will stand witness to a fruitful partnership between the two players in the new decade.

(The author is a public policy and corporate affairs consultant. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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