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A cape of good hope

Thanks to historical links, India has various advantages over China in Africa. But it needs to make its presence felt, says Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Sep 29, 2009 21:37 IST
Lalita Panicker

As a child growing up in Zambia, I remember the awed tones in which my father’s friends would speak of how smart the Chinese were in building roads and railways in African countries. And we are speaking of several decades ago. The people have changed but the conversation remains the same. We Indians have been knocking about in Africa for aeons but the Chinese are cornering the big-ticket items like oilfields and mines.

It is not that we are not up to giving the Chinese a run for their money. It is perhaps that we still have outdated notions of who we should do business with. Those Indian companies that have ventured into Africa have done superbly well. I still remember visiting a carbon black factory run by the Aditya Birla group in Alexandria and the admiration its functioning invoked among the locals in this historic seaport. Tata lorries and trucks ply all the main African highways. And, of course, Gujaratis run all the 24-hour shops in many capitals.

And it would not be an exaggeration to say that we have a definite edge over the Chinese in quite a few respects. First,
and I know this sounds cheesy, we have the brand value of being from the land of the Mahatma, an icon revered in most African countries. The great African leaders, from Kwame Nkrumah to Nelson Mandela, have never spared an opportunity to attribute the inspiration for their struggles to Gandhi. And he is still a very recognisable figure in the continent. The other is the English language. And, last but significant, is the fact that the people from India looking to invest in Africa are mostly from the private sector, unlike the Chinese juggernaut that’s almost entirely State-driven.

In the many countries where the Chinese have been active, they have come to be looked upon as people who have replaced the white masters who colonised Africa’s enormously resource-rich countries. In recent times, there have been several demonstrations against what is perceived as China’s rapacious ways in some African countries. After a deep and dark period, many African countries are robustly embracing democracy, something a little alien to the Chinese. So, apart from the Americans — for some time in a bit of bad odour thanks to the much-reviled George Bush, the destroyer — the other country that many African countries have looked to for building democratic institutions is India.

The Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor’s recent visit to Africa shows that the government is looking to engage the continent in a far more vigorous manner than it has for decades. This is not to say that all will be smooth sailing for companies that go into Africa. Many of its nations are facing daunting challenges in the form of civil wars, poverty and crippling diseases like Aids. Many of its leaders are tinpot dictators who are happy to be on the take from the highest bidder.

India needs to follow a double-pronged strategy if it hopes to establish a lasting presence in Africa. One is to build up the capacities of the continent’s immensely resilient people in the form of education and healthcare. The other is to boost their economies by setting up profitable partnerships with local enterprises. The loot-and-scoot policies of the colonial masters, and indeed the Chinese, will only yield short-term gains.

The figures as they stand today are investments from China of $55 billion to India’s $25 billion. But again, India has a great deal to build on. In Ethiopia alone, India’s private sector has been very active. With its seaport, 351 Indian companies with an investment of $1.8 billion is not something to be sneezed at.

The African continent is desperately in need of roads, airports, transit systems, telecommunications and information technology. Where we are falling short is in an active foreign service lobbying for India in many African countries. We seem quite content to allow the Chinese to move in first, set up shop, and then try and compete with them. Up to 48 per cent of all business in Africa went to the Chinese in the period 2000-2005, with India coming a poor fourth or fifth.

Whether it is copper mining in Zambia to iron ore in Gabon to oil in Angola, the Chinese have been there before us.

The Indian community in Africa has never really worked very actively as it does in, say, the US or Britain, to further India’s interests in the continent. Now that we have a minister, Twitter and all, focused on the continent, let’s hope that things will look up. The African century is about to happen given the manner in which so many of its countries have effected such a dramatic turnaround from the depths they had found themselves in.

For all these years, we were too focused on getting on the good side of the Americans. Well, we seem to have done quite well on that front. But what we don’t seem to have realised is that the ‘winds of change’ are blowing across an Africa which is seeking to re-invent itself. We have got a foot in the door, all we need now is to push a little harder to work towards a relationship that works well for all parties concerned. If we could do Incredible India, we can help with Amazing Africa.