What does India have to offer Africa?

What does India have to offer Africa?

By tapping into its special relationship with the African continent, India may be able to close the gap left by China.

The arrival of India as a major player on the African continent was marked by the third annual India Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) held in New Delhi. At least 40 heads of state and 2,000 delegates from across Africa continent attended the four-day event held at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium.

Opening speeches by India’s External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj followed by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe (Chairperson of the AU), and Chairperson of the African Union Commission Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma broadly touched on topics ranging from the historic relations between India and Africa to the capacity of both to play a more central role within the international community.

As with most international summits of this nature, platitudes and commitments to trade, aid, and development were commonplace; but the feeling of euphoria tends to yield to stark reality as summits come to a close.

India’s current situation — home to one-third of the world’s poor and facing chronic energy woes, entrenched corruption, and fractious ethnic conflict — begs the question: What does India have to offer Africa, and how can this engagement differ from China’s dominance on the African continent?

Historic relations

India’s engagement with Africa cannot be viewed through the narrow lens of the current geopolitical context. The two regions have been exchanging commerce and culture since 1st century AD.

India-Africa trade

The 20th century ushered in forged alliances and solidarity between African and Asian states in the struggle against Western colonization and imperialism, mostly via the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which was started with the help of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah in 1955.

In later years, the third world found itself entangled in Cold War politics due to patron-client relations. Proxy wars between the U.S. and USSR ushered in a softening of India and Africa relations, which were particularly strained during the 1972 expulsion of 55,000 persons of Indian origin from Uganda during Idi Amin’s regime.

Since the 2000’s, economic and diplomatic engagement have increased between India and the African continent, as both boast burgeoning economies and some of the youngest and fastest-growing populations in the world. Prime Minister Modi said, “In less than a decade, our trade has more than doubled to over $70 billion, which illustrates the results of such engagement.”

Alternative to China

India’s interest in reinvigorating its ties with the continent is well timed.

Since 2009, China has been Africa’s biggest bilateral trading partner, which has boosted the continent’s growth rate. However, China’s recent economic slowdown means less demand for extractive resources and infrastructure investments, thus placing Africa in a precarious position.

India can potentially fill that gap.

According to the IMF, India is on course to surpass China as the fastest growing economy in 2016. Through scaling up bilateral trade and cooperation with India, Africa could tap into areas such as agronomic technology and agribusiness models. Both have enabled India to feed its vast population in spite of having nine times less arable land than Africa.

Energy concerns are a problem that the countries could also work on cooperatively as Nigeria has become India’s largest supplier of crude oil. Projects like the Pan African e-Network can facilitate transfer of knowledge by providing virtual education from India’s top universities to African countries.

Expanding India’s pharmaceutical presence beyond the Anglophone East Africa region is another opportunity to fill a gap left behind by expensive patented medicines and Chinese-produced medicines. The above are just a few of the industries and sectors where both continents can mutually benefit. Others include piracy patrols, anti-terrorism and cyber security.

The India distinction

China and India may overlap in Africa when it comes to international cooperative initiatives for health care, food, and counter-terrorism, but while China focuses on its relationship with government, India is focused on historical kinship and societal cooperation. Prime Minister Modi stated, “We have stood together under blue helmets to keep peace and we fought together against hunger and disease.”

However, matching the depth of China’s investment will require herculean effort. China’s use of soft power and non-intervention as marquee features of its Africa policy has catapulted its bilateral trade with the continent from $10 billion in 2000 to approximately $300 billion in 2015.

India’s aim is not to duplicate what its regional rival has done over the last decade, but to use its own brand of soft power to highlight the special relationship. This emphasizes mutual cooperation and the strategic needs of the continent, not just resource extraction.

For example, the Indian government is taking a keen interest in the 2.7 million diaspora Indians living in Africa who have played a key entrepreneurial role in forging commercial ties with India’s private sector. This same diaspora is integrated more broadly across the continent as activists, artists, and doctors.

Moreover, the island nation of Mauritius has a population that is 68% Indian. India aims to increase transfer technology through the establishment of 10 vocational centers throughout Africa and a host of other private-sector initiatives designed to drive productivity, competitiveness, and employment generation.

What does India have to offer Africa?

The answer to the title question is rhetorical.

Yes, India can offer Africa plenty, but if it wants to secure partnerships and deepen ties on the continent it will have to follow through on its commitments. Echoing this sentiment, Prime Minister Modi and other African leaders during the summit acknowledged various shortcomings surrounding the implementation of projects and called for a monitor mechanism to ensure completion of projects.

Ultimately, Africa and India need each other. Africa needs to diversify its economy away from relying on a single trade partner, and India needs to feed industries and satisfy domestic consumption. 

It will take time before India matches China’s influence on the continent, but by playing to its strengths–government support for existing transnational private-sector enterprises, established technology transfer routes, and a strong diaspora–India just may close the gap.

Categories: Economics, International

About Author

Adolphus Washington

Adolphus Washington is a political researcher and writer with specific expertise in sub-Saharan African Affairs. Previously he has worked with GIABA, International Alert and a number of other international organizations. He holds an MSc in African Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies.