Recognizing the widening gap and huge untapped potential in their economic cooperation, Russia and Africa are gearing up efforts in raising the level of trade and business, Lyubov Demidova, Deputy Chairperson of the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry at Moscow Region, explained in an interview with me, while emphasizing unreservedly the importance of increasing business and economic cooperation with the African countries.
She says that Russians are constantly interested in partnering with large and medium scale businesses in the African market as well as in the continuing interest of Africans to further cooperate with Russia, and further pointed out that a significant impetus to the Russian-African business cooperation was given by the visit of the then Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev to a number of African countries in June 2009.
Since then, many Russian delegations have visited the continent, the highest ranking delegation headed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to a few African countries, notably Zimbabwe where he launched the $3 billion project and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where he held discussion with Africa Union Commission Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, about Russia's readiness to infrastructural development.
In 2014, Russia started a new $3 billion platinum mine about 50 km north-west of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. The Russian project, where production is projected to peak at 800 000 ounces year, involves a consortium consisting of the Rostekhnologii State Corporation, Vneshekonombank, as well as investment and industrial group, Vi Holding, in a joint venture with some private Zimbabwe investors as well as the Zimbabwean government.
Brigadier General Mike Nicholas Sango, Zimbabwe's Ambassador to the Russian Federation, wrote recently that Russia's biggest economic commitment to Zimbabwe to date was its agreement in September 2014 to invest $3 billion in what is Zimbabwe's largest platinum mine.
"What will set this investment apart from those that have been in Zimbabwe for decades is that the project will see the installation of a refinery to add value, thereby creating more employment and secondary industries," Brigadier General Sango explained to the local media.
"We are confident that this is just the start of a Russian-Zimbabwe economic partnership that will blossom in coming years. Our two countries are discussing other mining deals in addition to energy, agriculture, manufacturing and industrial projects. Russia also continues to assist Zimbabwe in training young Zimbabweans in special-skills areas such as medicine, general engineering, agricultural engineering and many other disciplines," Ambassador Sango added. Groundwork was laid for expanding trade and investment when Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe met President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in May 2015.
Undoubtedly, Russia has been implementing a number of other large-scale projects with participation of Russian capital in Africa. Among them are the development of the world's largest bauxite deposit in Guinea and an aluminium plant in Nigeria as well as oil and gas in Uganda.
Of particular importance is also the creation a Russian industrial zone in Egypt. It is expected that products of Russian companies will localize their production and will be in demand not only in the local market, but also in all regions of North and East Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Besides projects, trade is also important. Speaking at a symposium organized by the Embassy of the Republic of Ghana as part of the Independence Day (March 6) celebration in Moscow and which was attended by the eminent group of diplomats, industry leaders, prominent international traders and analysts, Dr. Leonid Fituni, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, called on Russian authorities to take significant practical steps to provide African countries with broad preferences in trade.
He pointed out that "Russia attaches special significance to deepening trade and investment cooperation with African States, including the involvement of Russian economic operators in the implementation of infrastructure projects. It is encouraging that more Russian companies being aware of the prospects that are opening in the large market of the continent work actively in such fields as nuclear energy, hydrocarbon and metallurgy industries."
On their part to engage Russian investors, Africans have seized efforts and shown activeness in business events (conferences, forums, seminars and exhibitions) in many cities, the latest in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, in the Russian Federation. Official government representatives and private individuals from about fifteen African countries attended the IV Russian-African Forum (RAF) held on 11-14 July as part of the INNOPROM-2016 international industrial trade fair in Yekaterinburg (Urals).
According to the organizing committee, this year the African delegates represented different countries included Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Burundi, South Africa, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, Cameroon, Mozambique, Chad, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt.
The "Russian – African Forum" has become an integral part of the program of the exhibition and it is no coincidence, that the African vector every year becomes more and more significant in the foreign policy of Russia, - said Russian Minister of Industry and Trade, Denis Manturov while addressing the gathering.
He expressed assertively Russia's readiness to expand its activities in projects of nuclear energy and, oil and gas industry. "We hope that the authorities of the countries of the African continent will contribute their part in creating most favorable conditions for the development of all joint projects that we have been discussing and also here at INNOPROM," said Denis Manturov.
As already well-known, Russian companies are interested in projects focusing on mineral extraction, the energy sector, construction of large manufacturing facilities, human resources training, healthcare development, agriculture and food security, cooperation in digital technology and communications.
The general or popular sentiments at the 2016 Russian-African forum was that Russia and Africa need a more efficient system of exchanging vital information and effective efforts have to target, first and foremost, the search for new partnerships, new ways directed at boosting the economic cooperation and at implementing the biggest and most promising projects.
Unbelievably all these years, Russian officials in their speeches have repeated the same identified pitfalls, speed bumps or setbacks in the bilateral relations between Russia and Africa. The Foreign Ministry published the text of Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov's speech at its official website in July 2013 which he highlighted the same decade-old problems at a session of the Urals-Africa economic forum in Yekaterinburg.
One must admit that the practical span of Russian companies' business operations in Africa falls far below our export capabilities, on the one hand, and the huge natural resources of the huge continent, on the other," Bogdanov said.
"Poor knowledge of the African markets' structure and the characteristics of African customers by the Russian business community remains an undeniable fact," he said. "The Africans in their turn are insufficiently informed on the capabilities of potential Russian partners," Bogdanov said.
Experts have also been looking at ways to improve trade relations and economic cooperation. For instance, Andrey Efimenko, an Expert at the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Trade said in an exclusive interview with me that CCI of Russia closely monitored the activities of Russian companies in Africa, as a number of companies – members of Chamber are implementing major investment projects in this region of the world, in particular, Renova group, Gazprombank, LUKOIL, Rosneft, etc.
Unfortunately," Efimenko regrettably pointed out, "some large Russian companies operating on the African market, has managed to establish itself negatively in a number of countries. This is primarily due to ignorance of cultural peculiarities of the region, the lack of social responsibility, failure to completely fulfill contractual obligations. These cases damage the image of Russia and Russian companies with further entering the African market."
The Russian Chamber of Commerce conducted a survey of Russian companies regarding the work on the African markets has shown that in conditions of sanctions have hampered their access to financial and credit resources that could be directed to participate in the implementation of infrastructure projects, the purchase of foodstuffs and agricultural raw materials.
Certain deterrent factor is the cost of logistics from Africa to Russia and/or vice versa and weak solvency of local companies, interested in obtaining Russian products on preferential terms. Another constraint to the development of business cooperation with certain countries in the region (Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone) is currently an epidemic of the Ebola virus, as well as the lack of political stability in several African countries (Chad, Nigeria, Liberia, etc), the Expert explained.
In conditions of high competition on the African markets from China, European Union and the United States believe that public-private partnership with the coordinating and steering role of the state is at this stage the key to success and the best form of development of cooperation of Russia with African countries.
An important factor in the expansion of Russian-African relations – the establishment of development institutions such as the Russian export centre and Roseximbank. CCI of Russia is making serious efforts to unite the business community of the country for development of interaction with African countries.
On the initiative of the Chamber and with the support of Russian state, public and private organizations in 2009, established a Coordinating Committee on Economic Cooperation with Africa (south of Sahara) popularly referred to as AfroCom. Today, it unites more than 120 Russian organizations and companies interested in developing relations with Africa.
With the participation of the Committee are regularly conducted business activities, which are important both for the deepening of bilateral relations with individual countries, and to strengthen Russia-African relations in general. The Committee pays special attention to information work. The site completely devoted to the economy of the African continent and the development of Russian-African economic relations.
As a further step, the Africa Business Initiative (ABI) in partnership with the Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, are also attempting to bring together key representatives from large Russian companies, government and the academic community as a working group to focus on helping Russian companies to enter and work in Africa.
There is still high optimism. "Russia has a large scientific and technical potential, and the Moscow regions also are historically developed as industrial and scientific centers and have good opportunities to develop their export potential to Africa. I would not want to associate the current crisis in the West and in Europe with the development of relations between Russia and African States," Lyubov Demidova told Buziness Africa in Moscow.
She further informed that the new regional committee will include representatives of Russian organizations and companies, from government, public and business organizations in Russia, major Russian companies which already occupied a niche in Africa, and those who plan to transact business in Africa.
The main directions of its work are to inform members of the committee, to explore the possibilities of establishing a mechanism of financial support for Russian entrepreneurs, the organization of various business activities, including conferences, seminars, business meetings to establish contacts with potential partners.
One of the most important directions in the committee's work is working on the information back-up of the image. It consists of several components: forming a positive image of Russia and its business community, the provision of necessary business information about Africa, including the dissemination of information on tenders declared in Africa, analysis of the peculiarities of economic and socio-cultural development in Africa, reference materials about Russia and about the potential of Russian-African cooperation.
In order to bolster trade and raise economic cooperation, another new Regional Council for the Development of Economic Relations with African countries (RCDRA) was created early this February which will serve as a good mechanism for the development of fruitful cooperation in various fields.
For its part, the newly created Council will make every effort to establish large-scale, long-term and mutually beneficial cooperation and hopefully will meet the some positive results on the part of African States.
The main obstacle is insufficient knowledge of the economic potential, on the part of Russian entrepreneurs, needs and opportunities of the African region. For this, the Council hopes to help members of the business community of all African countries to address systematically issues of effective cooperation.
"The main task is to shift to a more comprehensive approach, using the extensive territorial network of the Russian Chamber of Commerce. Russia's business should be provided with full information on economic development in African countries and their needs in order to establish an ongoing Russia-African mutually beneficial business dialogue,"she suggested.
The most promising option for solving the problem of intensification of bilateral contacts is the practical work to establish links between individual companies and business associations from both sides, which will gradually accumulate positive experience of working together, to understand the capabilities and needs of each other leading to the development of the economy with Russian and with the African side, Demidova concluded.
Currently, the turnover of trade between Russia and Africa is estimated at $2.5 billion, while imports of non-primary goods to the African continent already aggregate to $430 billion and are growing at 10-15 % a year. Nearly, in all economic sectors in African countries, Russia's major competitors are from foreign countries especially Asia, western Europe and European Union.
By Kester Kenn Klomegah
The author is an independent research writer on Russia-African affairs.