Engaging with Africa

It may well appear we would be punching above our weight but do we have an alternative if we want to really contribute to lift up the continent – and feather our own nest in the process?

In 1975, while on studies abroad, I had the opportunity to acquaint myself with another student from Ghana. As it happens, I lost touch with him subsequently. However, until today, I recall him for his warmth, softness and spontaneous friendship. Having been also acquainted with other African nationalities, I have kept thinking to myself that Ghanaians must be a gentle people overall.

Later in life, I got to know of the various actions Kofi Annan, another Ghanaian, was doing for both the world at large and for Africa in particular as Secretary General of the UN. He became one of the few Africans to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. It was heart-warming that my original perception of the Ghanaian was confirmed in his case too.

When the electronic real time payment system of Mauritius was implemented in 2000, it drew international and regional attention and one of the first delegations to call on me, as Managing Director of the Bank of Mauritius, to acquaint themselves about the working of the electronic payment system was from Ghana. They collected all information with a view to following the track we had just established. That led me to think that Ghana was one of the progressive countries of our continent and that it deserved all our backing if only to remove the generalized opprobrium with which the continent was regarded in those days.

Let’s take up the hand that welcomes us

Last Monday’s call on us by President John Mahama of the Republic of Ghana and his delegation resulting in the signing up of four conventions in the wake of this visit to strengthen the economic and social ties between our two countries, shows that Mauritius could, if it persevered enough, re-connect more meaningfully with the continent. Ghana is a vast country, a fellow member of the African Union, a member of the western African economic union called ECOWAS. On its part, Mauritius still has its goodwill on the continent.

Other than becoming a bridge between us and ECOWAS- a rich economic hinterland we could go to- Ghana has enormous economic potential, being one of the important producers of gold and diamond and the world’s largest producer of cocoa. If we are imaginative enough, we could establish common investment vehicles to expand both countries’ economic scopes. For example, one of the handicaps of several African countries face is the lack of capacity to themselves process and export finished products from their raw materials such as cocoa, thus adding much more value to their production. We should perhaps take the cue from a place like Singapore, which would have undoubtedly seized such opportunities and proceeded in all earnest to muster the necessary international know-how and marketing of high standard finished products, to add to its economic scope.

We have unfortunately been in the habit of not pursuing strongly enough our first contacts to enhance our economic scope. What better ally than a President of Ghana speaking of cooperating in terms of recognizing mutual standards of production and academic qualifications, removing non-tariff barriers between our countries and seeking to facilitate the flows of investments by signing up to a double tax avoidance agreement, establishing a standing Joint Working Group to monitor progress and encouraging the flows of people by relaxing visa requirements?

Africa should be our next door playground

Not only Ghana, but almost the whole of Africa has opened up to us, for example, through our membership of COMESA and SADC and other pan-African forums. Thanks to our long-standing goodwill since the days our leaders fought, together with other African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, for liberation from colonization. An unfortunate attitude of some in our domestic private sector has too often been to look at Africa as an economic partner of the last resort only when existing other economic partnerships are reaching breaking point.

True, civil unrest and turmoils and the absence of institutional and legal guarantees in different parts of the Continent did not make engagement with Africa an attractive proposition for a long time. But things are changing, and an intelligent nation should go ahead and consolidate its African economic and social ties, not as a fall-back clause, but as an outright core and lasting partnership into the future. Even though having intimate links with the OECD, does Singapore not nestle itself also into the regional grouping called ASEAN and for good reason, too?

Many complain that there is a lot of corruption in Africa and therefore a place not worthwhile doing business with. Is that what we see from investment statistics? The 2014 Africa Survey by Ernst & Young, an international accounting and auditing firm and one of the ‘Big Four’, notes: “In less than 5 years, Africa has risen to become the second most attractive destination (for investments) in the world, tied with Asia.” All the FDI pouring into Africa originates from investors in the very countries whose authorities and NGOs are in the habit of throwing stones at us, not minding that they themselves live in glass houses. The Survey notes that countries like South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya are the emerging hotspots for international investment. Other reports add to this list, countries such as Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Ethiopia, Morocco and even Somalia.

Economics is not blind to moral and ethical values but when it comes to the crunch, it gets on to do tolerable business and eradicate, alongside, the bad habits country and business leaders might have fallen into. This is what is driving enormous investments into Africa – strong macroeconomic growth outlook, improving business environment, a rising consumer class, abundant natural resources, the democratic dividend and infrastructure development. It is not only outsiders who are propping up this flow of investments into Africa. African investors also tripled their intra-African FDI during the last decades, driven by job creation and the rise of a new consumer class.

Why we should invest ourselves more into Africa

If not all, several African countries have been inaugurating for quite some years now a change from the antediluvian concept that the whole of Africa should be placed in the same basket of not being fit for doing business. Instead of conceding to those who hold unjustified prejudices like these, Mauritius would do well to join all those who are busy writing a new economic chapter in Africa’s economic history – its major transformation from what was a backward continent to one that hosts today some of the world’s fastest growing economies which are poised to continue on that course. We could participate by creating and exploiting additional sea, air and land connectivities – bringing, as a key intermediary, finance and projects together — and giving more visibility to the pan-African identity and all that goes with it such as film, food and fashion, renewable energy, fishing, farming and so forth.

We cannot remain mere onlookers while the transformation of Africa is on-going. We have to keep reminding ourselves that two-thirds of Africa’s population depend on agriculture and farming and that, if we muster and contribute enough skills to lift up these areas, we could participate in a game-changing work of freeing lots of people nearby who are trapped in poverty, who daily confront inadequate education and health infrastructures and where millions of children go hungry to bed daily. And we also stand to gain in the process if only we gave up our conservative approach to doing business! It may well appear we would be punching above our weight but do we have an alternative if we want to really contribute to lift up the continent – and feather our own nest in the process?

 

  • Published in print edition on 28 August 2015

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