For many ordinary Japanese, Africa is still a distant continent on the other side of the world. On Tuesday, the eve of the Seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 7), “Bon for Africa,” a unique Bon Odori (folk dance) event was held in Yokohama. Visitors also enjoyed an African fashion show and other performances as well as African food stalls. The event was organized by the Japan International Cooperation Agency to raise interest in Africa and change people’s often negative images of the continent.
Though TICAD, launched by Japan in 1993, has often been criticized for not facilitating enough interaction with the private sector, this year’s three-day conference is expected to feature more involvement by the business community. While businesses representatives will take part in some of the TICAD’s official discussions, many seminars on issues surrounding Africa will be organized by the private sector and non-governmental organizations.
Why does Africa deserve Japan’s attention? It has achieved high economic growth in the recent years. From 2000 to 2017, Africa grew an average of 4.3 percent. Its population of 1.3 billion is rapidly expanding at an annual pace of 2.5 percent and is expected to reach 2.49 billion in 2050. Though the pace of development differ across the continent, personal computers, mobile phones and the internet are gradually penetrating African life.
Given its growing market potential, Japanese firms could have aggressively advanced into Africa, but their movement has been rather slow. Many experts point to the lack of infrastructure, an inadequate legal framework to smoothly conduct business, corruption and a dearth of Japanese people who are adept at doing business with African countries.
Meanwhile, China has been building a strong presence in Africa. While Japan’s direct investment on the continent stood at just $8.7 billion in 2017, China was the fifth-largest investor in Africa with $43 billion after France, the Netherlands, the United States and Britain. Beijing views Africa as a key part of its Belt and Road initiative and is strategically investing in the continent. There are 1 million Chinese in Africa compared to just 8,000 Japanese. Japan lacks a clear strategy on Africa.
But the problems facing Africa could be turned into a business opportunity for Japanese firms. The economies in the mineral-rich continent risk becoming too dependent on exports of natural resources, which, while bringing immense revenue, could leave them vulnerable to volatile market prices. African countries need strong domestic industries, and Japanese firms could facilitate such development by providing technology and know-how, as well as investments that create more local jobs.
Japan has also supported the nurturing of human resources in Africa through education and other means. One example is the African Business Education Initiative for Youth, which began after TICAD V in 2013. The program offers 1,000 young people from Africa an opportunity to study in Japanese graduate schools and work as interns in Japanese companies.
Issues to be discussed at TICAD 7 include creating a business-friendly environment and transforming Africa’s economic structure by fostering innovation and development in the private sector. Health, education, environmental issues such as the marine plastic problem and women’s empowerment are high on the agenda. Participants will also discuss ways to strengthen peace and stability.
The cooperation of Japanese businesses is required to spur economic development, but social issues and peace-building need the support of more than one government. To create stability in the region, the creation of an international framework will be indispensable.
While countries in sub-Saharan Africa have achieved rapid economic growth in recent years, extreme poverty remain concentrated in this area. According to the World Bank, out of 736 million people living on less than a $1.90 a day in the world, 413 million people were living in Sub-Sahara Africa, and 41.1 percent of the population in this area were existing in extreme poverty as of 2015.
UNICEF also points out that marriage before the age of 18 is a violation of fundamental human rights. Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence and are less likely to remain in school. Pregnancy during adolescence also increases the risk of related health complications.
Japan should lead the discussions, but must involve international organizations and the private sector to hammer out concrete policies that can alleviate problems in Africa. These issues should not emerge as a topic of interest only when TICAD is held every three years, and the conference and the related various side events should serve as a good eye-opening experience for Japanese people.