China is leading the pack in the 21st century ‘scramble for Africa’ but anybody who thinks Beijing has the continent sewn up need only glance at the passport of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
By the time he first visited the European Union in 2007, four years after coming to office, Lula had racked up six trips to Africa, covering 16 countries.
Then, in July, he was guest of honour at an African Union summit in Libya, a reminder to Beijing ahead of its second Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Egypt on November 8-9 that it is not alone in courting the continent and its raw materials.
Reflecting Lula’s push, Brazil’s annual trade with Africa has jumped from $3.1 billion in 2000 to $26.3 billion last year, a rate of growth outpaced only by China, which has seen two-way commerce soar tenfold this decade to $107 billion.
China has now eclipsed the United States as the continent’s biggest trading partner.
“The balance of commercial power has shifted entirely,” said Martyn Davies of Frontier Advisory, a South Africa-based consultancy for investors in emerging African markets.
“This is not something new it’s just been accelerated by the economic crisis. It’s towards inter-emerging market trade, rather than the traditional north-south trade.”
It is not only Brazil and China that are muscling in on Africa. The two other members of the so-called BRICs grouping India and Russia are also setting up stall in a region that for generations European powers regarded as their own back yard.
Indian trade with Africa has jumped from $4.9 billion to $32 billion this decade, a similar growth trajectory to Brazil.
However, in terms of foreign direct investment in the last six years, India leads the way with 130 projects, compared to 86 from China and 25 from Brazil, according to research by South Africa’s Standard Bank.
Both Brazil and India are also happy to use their cultural and linguistic links to advance their causes.
Besides sharing a language with Mozambique and Angola through common Portuguese heritage, nearly one in two Brazilians claims some African ancestry, while South Africa is home to more people of Indian origin than anywhere outside the subcontinent.
The Russians are also coming
In the last 12 months, Russia has also launched a major diplomatic and trade offensive in Africa, with Mikhail Margelov, its envoy to Sudan, declaring in January that Russia was “back in Africa” and ready to play a “more active role”.
His comments were followed within six months by a high profile visit by President Dmitry Medvedev to Egypt, Nigeria, Namibia and Angola to shore up Russian energy, mining, construction and telecommunications deals.
“These forays and the commercial deals which follow them are for the first time in 50 years forcing Western countries to play catch-up on a continent in which they have always maintained unlimited commercial access,” Standard Bank said last month.
The rise of competing sources of trade and investment also fulfils the ambitions of many African countries to free themselves from overdependence on commercial ties to one or two Western partners, in particular the United States.
Besides energy and minerals, which make up the lion’s share of African exports to the BRICs countries, there is growing interest in its arable land less than 25 % of which is cultivated as a source of food for export.
Probably typical of the deals of the future is the $1 billion China lent Angola in March to develop a farming sector devastated by a 27-year civil war that only ended in 2002.
“Africa’s agricultural potential will become an increasingly potent driver of the BRICs commercial engagement with the continent,” Standard Bank said in a report.