Russia is steadily making efforts to penetrate African countries. But experts have argued that while focusing on building positive and genuine economic relationships, Russia has to cooperate on or compete for investment projects with foreign players in Africa.
And as Africa's emerging and frontier markets gather pace, what other implications and opportunities this present for foreign countries looking for possible investment in the sub-Saharan African region?
Cooperation or Competition
David Shinn, an adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs and a former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, explains that most business interaction usually involves competition, the private sector is proportionally much more important in India, Brazil, and South Africa than is the case in China and Russia.
At the same time, companies from two different BRICS’ member countries can team up in their effort to win a contract or start a business in Africa. The area where there is more likely to be cooperation is foreign aid. China and Brazil have been cooperating on agricultural research in Africa. Theoretically, all BRICS’ members, including Russia, could cooperate on a development project financed by two or more BRICS’ members.
Shinn believes that the BRICS have strategic differences that will complicate a unified approach in Africa. Each BRICS’ member country has its own interests in Africa. Each one has a different development model and political system.
Keir Giles, an associate fellow on the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House (Royal Institute for International Affairs) in London, says that in many ways, Russia seems like the odd man out in the BRICS group. But with this emphasis from Moscow on finding alliances and alternative political fora, it's very much in Russia's interests to foster those relationships and present BRICS as a cohesive bloc.
In terms of interests in Africa, Russia is handicapped by having been absent from the game during the two decades when China has forged ahead with investments and presence. China has been a lot more proactive than Russia, driven in part by China's requirement for resources. However, natural resources are just the tip of the iceberg, and Chinese companies have strategically embraced Africa as a real market in retail business, construction, consumer goods and many other sectors. The increasing number of foreign players has spurred keen competition.
"The problem remains that there are whole sectors of the economy where Russia is simply irrelevant - to take the most obvious example, consumer goods - and so their engagement will always be dwarfed by China," Giles observes in his comment to a recent media query. "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."
Ian Taylor, a professor from University of St. Andrews in Scotland, says that Russia has minimal interest in Africa. Russia's outward investment is dominated by large resource-based corporations that seek to gain greater access to the African market of fuel, energy and metallurgy, and expand Russian investment flows to Africa but despite a slight upsurge in interest in trade with Africa, it might be said that still, Russia has no concrete foreign policy toward the continent and is outpaced by the other BRICS states.
"Moreover, I don't see BRICS as a cohesive group beyond the summits and so it is difficult to think of them working together for specific policies in Africa. The various companies and corporations from the BRICS countries compete individually against each other," according to Taylor.
Prioritizing Strategies or Taking Risks
Africa, which consists of 54 states, to many experts and investors, is the last frontier. It is the last frontier because it has a huge natural resources still untapped, all kinds of emerging business opportunities and constantly growing consumer market due to the increasing population. It has currently become a new business field for global players.
But, Russia craving to be a powerhouse is comparatively missing out! "The most conspicuous aspect of Russia's involvement in Africa is its absence," says John Endres, chief executive officer of Good Governance Africa from South Africa, adding that "whereas the Soviet Union was quite extensively engaged in Africa, Russia has almost entirely abandoned the field to other foreign players during the past two decades."
Besides other factors hindering Russia's move to Africa, Maxim Matusevich, director of the Russian and East European Studies program at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, says it seems that there are few areas of mutual economic interest between the Russian Federation and sub-Saharan African states. Ironically, many African nations suffer from the same affliction that has negatively impacted western investments in Russia: unfriendly investment climate/s/, unpredictable and capricious regimes, rapacious elites and a lack of rule of law.
Notwithstanding some of the pessimistic and critical positions of experts, a number of foreign players have admirable success stories. Brazil, India and China are very visible on the continent, but can they also have a meaningful unified BRICS foreign policy in Africa? Foreign players have their individual interests and varying investment directions.
Some experts still argue that it is never too late for Russia to enter the business game but what it requires is to move away from old Soviet stereotypes, prioritize corporate projects and adopt a new policy strategy for the continent – a market of some 350 million middle-class Africans.
Of course, Russia has to risk by investing and recognizing the importance of cooperation on key potential investment issues and to work closely with African leaders on the challenges and opportunities on the continent, Andy Kwawukume, an independent policy expert told me from London, noting that Russians have been trying to re-stage a come-back over the past few years, which was a commendable step forward.
Kwawukume, a Norwagian trained graduate, pointed out that "there is enough room and gaps in Africa for Russians to fill too, in a meaningful way, which could benefit all parties involved. The poor and low level of infrastructural development in Africa constitutes a huge business for Russian construction companies to step in. Energy is another sector Russians could help in developing."
Over the past few years, business summits have become increasingly common and interactive platform for dialoguing, that Russian officials should consider using its Russian trained African graduates as bridges to stimulate business cooperation. Really, what Russia needs is a multi-layered agenda for Africa.
Russia and others in the BRICS would like to see larger power centers emerge to offer an alternative to that Western dominated construct, and that is reasonable enough. "As a unified BRICS approach to Africa, especially terms of investment and business? I doubt it. I suspect the only unified stance would be one supporting non-interference in its domestic affairs. This means that individual BRICS member states would prefer to identify and negotiate for business taking into cognisance of its own interests," according to Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance Capital, an investment company.
Dr. Igho Natufe, a research professor at the Center for Studies of Russian-African Relations and Foreign Policy of African Countries, whose book "Russian Foreign Policy in Search of Lost Influence" published recently, explained that for foreign players or investors, for example China or India, there must be a clear understanding regarding the scope of such a cooperation. Until then, there would be more competition than cooperation among these potential foreign investors for development infrastructure projects and business spheres in Africa.
"Even between China and South Africa, both members of BRICS, we have observed fierce competition on consumer goods market in South Africa. It is doubtful if Russia is able to compete with China or India in Africa, given Russia's ill-defined strategy on business relations with Africa and its current economic changes," Natufe told me in an interview comment by email.
Arguably, he pointed out that, China has established the benchmark on how to construct business relations in Africa. The annual China-Africa summit at the heads of state level is unrivalled among member-states of BRICS. This is demonstrated by the frequent business and political meetings between Chinese leaders and their African counterparts. No other member of BRICS, including Russia, has been able to replicate China's institutional structures in dealing with Africa. In fact, it can be argued that China gives BRICS a level of respectability in Africa.
Ojijo Al Pascal, an Ugandan lawyer and business consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in East Africa suggested that "Russia needs to have its own projects, in fact, mega or corporate projects. And it should have them in strategic areas, and strategically." Russia, in essence, could use it's history of electrifying the Soviet rural areas to help Africa. And it could promote the establishment of manufacturing hubs, mega projects, for its technologies and mutually beneficial spheres cooperating with other countries in Africa.
Al Pascal says that India is already in Africa, so is China. And South Africa is in car manufacturing industry, energy, agriculture and telecommunications. He also says that Russia needs to go alone as a new frontier for its ideological show of might against the West and European Union. Vladimir Putin needs to visit Africa, and engage the African youth and business community, like U.S. President Barack Obama and a few other leaders have done during the past few years.
Role of Financial Institutions
Russian financial institutions have shown high interest in helping to raise the economic and business profiles both ways, Russian business in Africa and African business in Russia. For example, Eximbank of Russia has expressed its readiness to take advantage of huge opportunities and existing growth potential in both regions and is always open for a dialogue and discussion of projects of various degree of complexity.
Dmitry Golovanov, chairman of the Management Board of Eximbank of Russia, advocates for an increased partnership between Russia and African countries, reaffirms the desire to continue developing business dialogue with interested companies in efforts to pursue active involvement in international programmes and projects for Africa.
Besides, the bank is ready for joint implementation of projects in the area of infrastructural development and that will positively influence development of contracts between Russian and African companies.
In a nutshell, nearly all the experts interviewed for this article have unreservedly acknowledged that most African governments, in recent years, have continously been introducing adequate measures, including legislation, healthy for investment and business. Information on all these are available, in any form, from government network sources.
In addition, they explained that many foreign countries, notably, the United States, European Union members, China, India and Japan, have effectively used their institutional structures, have regularly made financial commitments and have adopted strategies in pursuit of their key economic policy goals and interests in Africa. Thus, to cooperate or compete depends on the choice of individual external country looking to the next frontier to pursue business opportunities and invest in infrastructure development across Africa.