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Focus on Kenya-Japan relations should be business and not aid

By Billow Kerrow | August 28th 2016

The Japanese are in town this week, in thousands. I love these guys, really. They mean business, and have been good friends of Kenya for decades. That we are hosting their Prime Minister and thousands of businessmen and officials from that great country for the Ticad conference is remarkable, and historic. These folks and their country have stood with us in the development of our country long before some of our other friends started looking.

Real development in infrastructure, such as schools, universities, roads, bridges, hospitals etc that make a difference in our lives. Moi International Airport, Nyali Bridge, JKUAT, Moi University, Dongo Kundu road, Olkaria IV, Sondu Mirui, you name it! Their government funded some of the best infrastructural landmarks in Kenya. In Mandera, the Japanese financed the tarmacking of Mandera – El Wak road in 1977-78; the road has now disappeared 40 years on for lack of maintenance by the Government. Of course, unlike the US for instance, that funds civic education, elections, security, condoms! And unlike our Chinese friends, they do not roam our countryside selling fish and eggs under the guise of building roads, leaving behind little round-faced angels!

And most ordinary folks like me have made it on secondhand Japanese cars! In the old days before we accessed their mitumba, few Kenyans had cars. Without them, we would need 20M wide pavements today for us all to walk to our places of work! They do quality job, damn good! Their projects speak for themselves, as do their cars and other goods. Again, unlike our Chinese folks, they do not flood our villages with their cheap wares that hurt our factories.

Neither do they do the obnoxious magendo that some Chinese do in dumping! There are also few, if any, Japanese firms seeking contracts in government offices, brown envelopes in hand.

I have never been to Japan, nor do I do any business with Japanese folks. But I admire their business culture and values, some which have been absorbed into modern management techniques. Their teamwork culture, flexibility and adaptation to situations and the constant effort to improve and achieve perfection are key values that management gurus have adopted. Their humility and self-control as well as their attachment to business relations are virtuous qualities that many admire.

In recent years, their Chinese neighbours have edged them out of Africa. Giant China’s trade with Africa is now US$200 billion, while that of Japan with the continent is US$25 billion. Our exports to either country are negligible. However, our imports from China were USD$ 5 billion, while that from Japan was US$ 1 billion in 2014. Until it launched this Japan-Africa initiative, it had literary lost its focus on Africa. The last visit by a Japanese Prime Minister to Africa was in 2001. In Kenya, China has significantly overtaken Japan as the largest Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) provider. Still, Kenya is Japan’s largest aid destination in Africa, with over 300 projects.

Africa has become the most coveted destination for aid and investment by China, US and Japan, and for good reasons. It has the best performing economy in the world in recent years, heaps of energy and minerals, and a market of nearly a billion people with steadily growing middle-income segment. Japan has US$32 billion package for ODA and private sector investments that it hopes will keep it off the ropes in Africa.

Japan needs to reinvent and position itself strategically to get a piece of the cake as Africa gets out its slumber. The focus should be on business, not aid; at least in Kenya. China and Japan share a common stand on governance; they do not mind who runs what government, and how they do so! That’s a preserve of the West. For concrete staff, lets keep looking East!

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