The Yokohama Declaration adopted by the 53 African countries attending the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) highlights the importance of the role of the private sector. Africa has been referred to as the “largest frontier in the 21st century.” How can Japan enhance ties with this continent in a way that leads to benefits for both sides? The challenge to do that will test the wits of Japanese companies.
This year’s TICAD drew heads of state or leaders of equivalent rank from 42 [African] nations–the largest number since 1993 [when TICAD was launched]. At a time when China and other nations are setting up similar frameworks, this shows that TICAD has a certain level of prestige as an “old hand” [in African development].
TICAD has been under pressure to re-envision itself to keep in step with the times. One change is the focus placed on the importance of the role of the private sector as the prime player in relations with Africa. Symbolic of this was the holding of the first-ever Public-Private Business Dialogue. It was significant that top officers in government and companies discussed the issues together at this gathering.
Behind this move of the private sector to the fore is the fact that Japan and other developed nations no longer have the extra resources to be extraordinarily lavish in aid. Another important point is that African development has moved forward and the foundations for business have been created.
The question is: how should Japanese companies engage with Africa going forward? The continent offers a promising market with 1.2 billion people and a young, large middle class. Nonetheless, companies are not necessarily successful in entering the market. The geographical distance between Japan and Africa and Japanese companies’ lack of knowledge of Africa are factors.
If that is the case, some say that Japanese companies should partner with or buy Western companies experienced in the African market. A model of this would be Toyota Tsusho, which raised its profile in Africa by buying a major French trading firm.
Personal networks are also critical. The private sector conference held parallel to a plenary session featured some impressive young Africans who had studied abroad in Japan with support from the Japanese government and then worked at Japanese companies. Reports were given on how they are serving as bridges with Japan.
Some said that attracting such people required detailed follow-up after the study abroad in Japan and the creation of internal frameworks at companies.
A venture company undertaking a drone project in remote parts of Africa said it cannot start the project because the legal system in the area is underdeveloped. The government has a role to play as well.
China was the invisible player at the conference. To contain the so-called “debt trap,” the Yokohama Declaration stressed the importance of debt sustainability. Keeping in mind the China-led “One Belt, One Road” initiative to create a wide-area economic bloc, the declaration mentioned the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept.
What Africa is focused on, however, is not who but what will help them achieve economic and social stability. Japan should build private sector-led mutually beneficial ties that will make Africa choose Japan.