ISSN 2330-717X

Russia Struggling To Explore Africa’s Market – OpEd

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Building on post-Soviet relations with Africa, Russia has been struggling for strategies on how to establish economic footprints, promote investment and deepen cooperation in Africa. Despite the road map adopted at the end of the first Russia-Africa summit held in October 2019, little has been achieved since then.

Late September, the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry welcomed the participants to another round of conference under theme “Russia-Africa: Prospects for Cooperation” held in St. Petersburg. That gathering featuring a few interested Russian enterprises was part of a series of steps to brainstorm and discuss opportunities, developments and challenges with regards to the preparation of the forthcoming Russia-Africa summit planned for July 2023.

Additionally, the goal of this St Petersburg conference event was in line with the priorities on how to engage with credible investors who can partner with the government and private sector to exploit the market. It discussed the possibilities of strengthening partnership between Russia and Africa, as well as issues related to export/import, logistics and peculiarities of working with African partners.

Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation Vladimir Padalko welcomed the participants via video link from Moscow. In the video, Padalko emphatically reminded that “preparations for the second Russia-Africa summit, scheduled for July 2023 in St. Petersburg, are in full swing and we should come to it with concrete results in the form of agreements ready for signing.”

According to him, the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African Countries should focus on conducting business missions that would identify specific areas for conducting business cooperation with African countries. It is necessary to help Russians to learn what the African market is, so that they are not afraid of taking investment risks in Africa. 

Padalko said that the prejudices that Russians have regarding Africa should be overcome. He referred to his own experience, emphasizing that the first trip to the African continent made him change his mind significantly about the opportunities offered by cooperation with Africa. Russia is trying hard to improve its commercial relations with its African partners. In 2009, it established the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa to assist in promoting Russian business interests.

Senator Igor Morozov, Chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African Countries, called for increasing the pace and level of cooperation with African countries through, as he put it, “bringing small and medium-sized businesses to Africa.” 

According to him, Russia is far behind in its activity on the African continent from such countries as the United States, Britain, China, France and even India and Turkey. These countries are developing a network of technology parks, working in the continental free trade zone, participating in the development of the infrastructure of African countries, the construction of roads, bridges and railways.

Senator Morozov further noted that “Russian business does not have the tools to enter Africa ​​and, above all, in the field of the banking system. No other banks give guarantees to Russian business. According to him, African countries are interested in the supply of agricultural machinery, and in this sense, the Kirov Plant in St. Petersburg may have good opportunities. And in this sense, we should take an example from our Belarusian friends.” 

That was not the first time analyzing the development of business and trade relations with Africa. The African market is competitive and complex, therefore Russian business needs to work thoroughly and systematically in it in order to achieve success.  It is necessary to help interested businesses willing to navigate African realities, find a niche for their work, learn about the conditions for entering certain markets.

According to Morozov, there is really the need for a specialized investment fund to support entrepreneurs. In general, with the prospect of working with African partners for many years, more serious state support is needed, and finally suggested that it is necessary to return to barter trade and concessions, which will make it possible to obtain minerals from Africa.

“We need to develop our international payment instruments – sanctions are already being imposed against the Mir system,” he said. A great deal of hope is being placed on the working group for developing new mechanisms in currency regulation and international settlements led by Kremlin aide Maxim Oreshkin, “which is supposed to work out these mechanisms soon,” Morozov said.

“We need to see how we will work within the framework of national currencies” and use them for settlements with African countries, he said. “We need to work in this direction, understanding that SWIFT will never again be [the main system for interbank payments] for us,” Morozov, who also serves on the Federation Council’s Economic Policy Committee, said.

Talks on options for settlements between Russia and African countries in the current economic circumstances are already being held, but “we shouldn’t get ahead of events. African central banks are already beginning to come [to Russia]. Everyone understands that we are leaders in grain exports, leaders in sunflower oil, mineral fertilizers, and it is necessary to settle up,” Morozov.

Other options for settlements could be barter and concessions. The outlook for cooperation and possible Russian projects in Africa, Morozov said Russia can offer its competencies in hydropower, electric passenger transport, automobile manufacturing, farm machinery and pharmaceuticals. Afrocom operates with the support of the Federation Council and government institutions, according to the committee’s website.

Associate Professor Ksenia Tabarintseva-Romanova, Ural Federal University, Department of International Relations, acknowledges huge existing challenges and perhaps difficult conditions in the current economic cooperation between Africa and Russia. Creating African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is the most important modern tool for the economic development of Africa, and this is a unique for exploring and to get acquainted with the opportunities that it offers for business cooperation.

She, however, maintains that successful implementation requires a sufficiently high level of economic development of the participating countries, logistical accessibility, developed industry with the prospect of introducing new technologies. This means that in order for African Continental Free Trade Area to effectively fulfill its tasks, it is necessary to enlist the provision of sustainable investment flows from outside. These investments should be directed towards the construction of industrial plants and transport corridors.

Speaking earlier in an interview discussion, Tabarintseva-Romanova pointed to the fact that Russia already has vast experience with the African continent, which now makes it possible to make investments as efficiently as possible, both for the Russian Federation and for African countries. In addition, potential African investors and exporters could also explore business collaboration and partnerships in Russia.

Local Russian media, Rossiyskaya Gazeta also published an interview with Professor Irina Abramova, Director of the Institute of African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, focusing on the economic cooperation with Africa. In this interview, Abramova reiterated explicitly that Russians have to do away with negative perceptions and attitudes toward Africa. The change in attitudes has to reflect in all aspects of the relationship with Africa and Africans.

“In Russians’ minds, Africa is synonymous with backwardness, poverty and hunger, which is not true at all. It is currently one of the most promising regions for foreign investment. In fact, it is a tiger ready to pounce. Africa today is in the same situation that China was in the 1990s. Today, China is the world’s number-one economy in purchasing capacity, a strong power which largely determines global development,” she explained.

“Africa is the zone where all big players overlap since its geographic location between the east and the west puts it at the peak of controversy and big game between all players, meaning between Europe and America, on the one hand, and China, India and other countries, on the other. And if Russia poses as a superpower it will lose its global influence without indicating its position in Africa as well,” she said.

According to her, seven African countries specifically Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, South Africa, Tunisia, Nigeria and Sudan, account for nearly 90% of Russia’s trade. “At the same time, China is present in almost all African countries. Millions of Chinese work in Africa today. It is a good moment for Russia now, because Western partners are trying to impose their values on the Africans, while China is dealing with its challenges at the expense of Africa,” the expert stressed.

The middle class is expanding very fast there, already amounting to 250-300 million people and this constitute a huge consumer market for products and services, according to her estimation.

Professor Abramova noted that it is a very good market for Russian products. The Chinese understood that long ago and are tapping the African market, having flooded it with their products, though Russia also has opportunities as it is fairly competitive in the energy, infrastructure and agriculture sectors, and exporting products such as fertilizers, trucks and aircraft supplies.

The fact that many prominent politicians and businessmen of the African continent graduated from Russian universities and speak Russian well contributes to strengthening of Russian-African relationship, the expert said, adding though that a new generation is about to take over in Africa, which is also reason why Moscow should maintain the existing solid social and cultural ties.

Senator Igor Morozov and Professor Irina Abramova are both members of the Kremlin’s Committee assigned the responsibility for coordinating and preparations for the next Russia-Africa summit in July 2023. Both Russia and Africa had problems finding a suitable African venue for the summit. The joint declaration adopted in Sochi says the summit be held every three years and the venue alternated between Russia and Africa.

Sampson Uwem-Edimo, President of the Nigerian Business Council and General Director of Trailtrans Logistic LLC, delivered a report “Nigeria as a Window to Africa” and further stressed that Russia does not have a common strategy on how to enter African markets, which exists, say, in China or France.

By removing barriers to trade in the region will create new entrepreneurial activities and spur innovations in technology. Now the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) seeks to create better conditions for investment. On the other hand, Russian corporate directors most often have problems with their business in Africa. The key obstacles ranging from their inconsistencies in own approach, poor knowledge of the local political and business environment. Russians must also invest more in R&D collaborations with their African partners.

According to him, while Russians hope for brisk business, many African business leaders today are still Western mind-oriented, have various support from the United States and Europe. But the practical reality, Russia could still steadily transfer technologies for local processing of raw materials as a catalyst for Africa’s development.

Uwem-Edimo noted that such former colonial powers as France and Great Britain, although they left their colonies, keep control panels in their capitals. The Nigerian businessman, who spoke in Russian, introduced the conference participants to the opportunities and vast potential of the African continent, focusing on Nigeria, which makes up 18 percent of the continent’s population – 240 million people.

President of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Vladimir Katenev, also addressed the conference participants with a greeting. The moderator was Ekaterina Lebedeva, Vice-President of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry Union, who called on representatives of the business community, in spite of the emerging challenges, to consistently work towards prioritizing Africa.

Kester Kenn Klomegah

Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and a policy consultant on African affairs in the Russian Federation and Eurasian Union. He has won media awards for highlighting economic diplomacy in the region with Africa. Currently, Klomegah is a Special Representative for Africa on the Board of the Russian Trade and Economic Development Council. He enjoys travelling and visiting historical places in Eastern and Central Europe. Klomegah is a frequent and passionate contributor to Eurasia Review.

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