Tokyo Pushes Africa’s Private Sector

Tokyo International Conference on African Development

Driven by demand from its African trading partners, the Japanese government is looking for new ways to get the private sector involved in its African economic initiatives.

“Critical infrastructure – I think that is what will liberate Africa.” So predicted Shamsuddeen Usman, deputy chairman of Nigeria’s National Planning Commission, at a ministerial follow-up meeting to Japan’s pan-African initiative, the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD).

His sentiments were echoed by many of the delegates at the meeting in Morocco, on 5-6 May. They want greater Japanese assistance in building the roads, railways and ports that will link African countries more closely to the rest of the world – and to each other.

Until now, the hallmark of TICAD has been grants, concessional loans and state-of-the-art development programmes. These have been focused on progress toward the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Fixing infrastructure problems, however, will require the deep pockets and muscle of the private sector.

“From now on, the private sector will play an important role, that’s what we’ve agreed at this conference,” said Japan’s foreign minister Koichiro Gemba.

Coaxing Japanese businesses to invest in Africa may be difficult. Akio Dobashi, president of Sojitz Corporation and representative of Keidanren, the Japanese Business Federation, pointed to a lack of management and skilled labour. He encouraged the widespread development of technical schools to equip the continent’s workforce with the necessary training.

A promise made…

Dobashi said public-private partnerships are a way to attract Japanese companies to invest in infrastructure projects, suggesting Japan could offer more tied loans contingent on contracting Japanese services.

Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA) also confirmed in May that it would contribute a second tranche of $1bn to the African Development Bank’s Enhanced Private Sector Assistance for Africa Initiative over the next five years.

For all the forward thinking, one goal of the meeting was to measure progress toward the pledges made at the fourth TICAD meeting in Yokohama in 2008. Japan has weathered turbulent years since then. Still reeling from the global credit crisis, its situation took a dramatic turn when the country was struck by the strongest earth- quake in its history in March 2011.

At a meeting in Dakar, Senegal, just two months later, many expected Japan to back-pedal on its pledges. Instead, the country promised to honour its commitments.

“We were sure that nothing agreed in Dakar would hold, but it has held,” said Falla Ensa-N’Dayma of the Civic Commission for Africa.

Japan’s slightly exceeded its pledge to double its official development assistance (ODA) to Africa to $1.8bn by 2012. Private investment, averaged over the years 2006 to 2010, reached $5.2bn, greater than the promised $3.4bn.

Gemba cannot rest on this re- cord for long. The fifth TICAD, in July 2013, will bring a new round of pledges that will guide the next phase of Japan-Africa relations.

Of those that come courting, Bernard Membe, Tanzania’s minister of foreign affairs, hinted at fatigue: “Japan-Africa. China-Africa. Brazil. Turkey. At the end of the day, we’ll all be confused with all the competing priorities.”

But Gemba sought to distance Japan from the other suitors. “With emerging countries such as China, the transparency needs to be improved. We walk the talk: we put into practice what we promise”