With the West in Turmoil, Africa Looks for New Partners


Nothing reflects the broken international structure more aptly than the news that the United States has grabbed the world’s entire supply of coronavirus-treating drug remdesivir till October. With this new dog-eat-dog mentality and a potential trade war brewing between the West and China, Africa finds it has been left to fight the pandemic and economic crisis all on its own. Investment from the West has dried up, while China’s standing has been damaged on the continent.

It therefore comes as a stroke of good news that Zimbabwe has signed a landmark $58 million deal with Belarus to mechanise its agricultural sector. Belarus will provide farming machinery and advanced technology to Zimbabwe, as well as training for local farmers in cultivation, seeding, irrigation, and crop harvesting.

This could be a game-changer for Zimbabwe, which is reeling from the economic effects of coronavirus, a disastrous drought and Cyclone Idai last year that left over 5 million people in need of food aid.

Belarus is a former Soviet republic with a proud history of mechanical engineering. Its manufacturing sector employs 150,000 people and encompasses about 200 enterprises. The product range is extensive: from microchips and heart valves to the world’s biggest dump trucks (of which it occupies 30% of the world market).

Importantly, Belarus provides foreign buyers with project financing on favourable terms from the Development Bank of Belarus, the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) and the Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank (TDB). This is particularly useful during the present crisis as normal financing has dried up.

Leading the trade and investment push to Africa is Alexander Zingman, the head of AFTRADE DMCC, the official representative of several Belarusian manufacturers.

He has set up a servicing centre in Harare to provide spare parts and warranty services. The first batch of modern farm machinery has been shipped to Zimbabwe, including 20 grain harvesters for grain and maize, 100 tractors, and 52 seed drills, with the second batch expected by December.

“This project will enable Zimbabwean farmers to boost the productivity of their land and to reduce their losses through timely crops harvesting. The result will be that farmers can ensure the food security of Zimbabwe itself and, where possible, also raise their income levels by exporting their produce,” said Zingman.

Agricultural machinery is in demand in Africa as the continent gears up to increase food production. The exports of Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ) to the continent soared 70% in January-March 2020 over the same period in the previous year. It has supplied tractors to Kenya, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and other countries.

AFTRADE DMCC has been active in Zambia too, setting up a tractor manufacturing plant that will create more than 1,000 local jobs. The assembly plant will also boost Zambia’s revenues through the export of tractors to neighbouring Malawi and Mozambique.

This project will provide industrialisation for the Zambian economy, as well as service support, spare parts and training, and the transfer of know-how and technology from Belarus.

Zingman has been building a long-term relationship with Africa beyond trade and exports. In April 2019, he helped provide humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe and Mozambique after the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai, flying in much-needed supplies to support survivors of the natural disaster.

In a way, businessmen like Zingman have become ambassadors for their countries, as they travel around the world meeting with politicians and executives in pursuit of win-win business and trade deals, but are also the first on the ground in times of need, whether it’s a public health crisis or a natural disaster.

“African countries and Belarus have much to offer each other. At a time when the rest of the world is closing its doors, Belarus stands by its African partners and is ready to help rebuild their economies,” said Zingman, who is also the Honorary Consul of Zimbabwe to Belarus.

Most importantly, there is no colonial baggage or debt traps in this relationship. Unlike trade pundits from the West, Zingman does not set stringent conditions or view Africa through a colonial lens. Nor do Belarusian companies demand high interest repayments, unlike Chinese suppliers.

African countries are also keen to steer away from foreign assistance that has, at times, developed a culture of dependency in Africa and fostered paternalism – as opposed to partnership – by the West. Increasingly governments across the continent are thus taking the opportunity to create an enabling environment to build prosperity in Africa through broader economic and trade engagement as well as job creation initiatives.

The growing bond of trust that AFTRADE DMCC has developed between many Africa countries and Belarus is cleverly tapping into that concept. These unexpected partners consider themselves on equal footing, certainly an auspicious prerequisite for a successful, long-term relationship.

Krishna Nag
Krishna Nag
Independent journalist covering Africa and Asia. Based in London, I write on political and economic issues.