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Connection: Commodities

From coffee to cocoa, cobalt to crude, continent feeds Japan's needs

by Setsuko Kamiya

Few Japanese may be knowledgeable about far-away Africa, but the continent’s exports affect daily life here.

With the Wednesday start in Yokohama of the fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development, one should pause and take a quick glance at facts and figures about the continent’s many valuable and necessary commodities.

Here in Japan, you might start the day with a cup of coffee from Ethiopia, the fifth-largest supplier of raw coffee beans to this nation, after Brazil, Columbia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Your breakfast grapefruit could be from South Africa, the second-largest source of the fruit after the United States.

Even more typical Japanese fare may boast African ingredients. Bluefin tuna caught off Tunisia may be served as sashimi. In 2007, Japan, the world’s largest tuna consumer, imported 637 tons of frozen bluefin from the African country.

Tempura is often fried with sesame oil that adds a nice crispy aroma. Because Japan produces little sesame on its own, it must import the seeds and oil from many countries, including Nigeria, Tanzania, Mozambique and Burkina Faso, according to the Japan Oilseeds Processors Association and the Foreign Ministry.

The octopus in the popular fast food “takoyaki” — grilled batter dumplings with vegetables and diced octopus — probably came from Morocco, the source for 70 percent of Japan’s imports, or from neighboring Mauritania, which provides 10 percent.

Many chocolate products are made from cacao beans from Ghana, the largest source of the beans bound for Japan at 60 percent of the market.

And those macadamia nuts in the chocolate may be from Malawi or Kenya.

Florists in Japan these days meanwhile boast large stocks of roses from Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania, which compete for the trade with South Korea and other parts of Asia as well as the Netherlands. Japan imported some 13 million African roses in 2006.

“The improved cultivation techniques, freezing systems, infrastructure and transporting routes are allowing these countries to succeed in this industry and leading to their economic growth,” Sadako Ogata, head of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, told a recent news conference in Tokyo.

But of all the commodities from this resource-rich continent, crude oil is the hands-down winner.

According to the Japan External Trade Organization, crude oil made up 21 percent of the $13.26 billion worth of items exported from the 53 African countries to Japan in 2006. Petroleum exporters include Sudan, Angola, Nigeria, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

The second-largest item shipped from Africa is platinum, which mostly comes from South Africa, home of 89 percent of the world’s total reserves. This metal is used not for jewelry, but for exhaust systems as well as engine parts for automobiles, Japan’s leading industry.

South Africa is also a major supplier of other rare metals, including palladium, which is used in auto parts as well as dentures.

Uganda and Zambia meanwhile ship cobalt, essential for making batteries that go into computers, mobile telephones and digital cameras.

For their part, African countries imported $9.25 billion worth of commodities from Japan in 2006, JETRO said. Automobiles accounted for 24 percent of the total, followed by ships at 6 percent.

Although Africa accounted for only 2.3 percent of all of Japan’s imports and 1.5 percent of Japan’s exports in 2006, bilateral trade has been gradually increasing over the past few years, according to JETRO.