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Ticad: Japan seeks to counter growing Chinese influence in Africa

By XN Iraki | September 1st 2019
The nest, venue of 2008 Beijing Olympics and a dragon shaped building in the background. Are China and Japan good enough counterweights to the West? [XN Iraki, Standard]

The seventh Tokyo International Conference on Africa Development (Ticad) took place in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan on August 28-30, 2019.

The country has 47 prefectures, like our counties, each headed by an elected governor. Among the delegates is President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The Japanese Foreign Affairs ministry says Uhuru met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for 25 minutes. Among the issues addressed are; free and open Indian Ocean, development of Mombasa Special Economic Zone, construction of Mombasa Gate Bridge, promotion of Universal Health Coverage and the Africa Health and Wellbeing Initiative. Remember Ticad 6 meeting took place in Nairobi in 2016.

Instructively, Ticad I was held in 1993, just after the end of the Cold War, when all the focus was on former Soviet republics. The Japanese shift to Africa when the focus was elsewhere was a stroke of genius.

This was a time when donor fatigue was a common term. Africa, after structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s, looked like a basket case. Those old enough can recall the suffering as prices were freed and terms like soko huru (free markets) ravaged the countryside as middlemen made a kill.

After the end of the cold war (vita baridi), the Japanese and later Chinese and lately Americans saw the potential in the once dark continent, with mineral resources and a vibrant market. No one will say loudly he or she is after Africa’s resources.

If you recall, lots of African countries were transitioning to democracy including Kenya in the early 1990s, their fluid political and economic situation made them good suitors for the Japanese and other global initiatives. Our current political fluidity has put us in a similar situation.

Japan hosting of African countries in Ticad could be interpreted as a counterweight to Chinese influence in Africa. Remember Japan and China are neighbours, not just geographically but economically. After the USA, they are the next two biggest global economies.

The two nations serve as a counterweight to USA global economic influence but not cultural influence. Despite all Japanese electronics and cars, we are either British or American culturally.

The Chinese big projects are yet to make Kenyans flood Chinese restaurants or their movie theatres. Mandarin is yet to compete with English in our schools or in business. Table manners mean British or American manners, not any Eastern manners. How many Kenyans can eat rice using chopsticks?

The Japanese and Chinese entry into Africa contrasts sharply with American or British. The two have taken a shorter time but have been very effective, where it matters most, economics through trade and investment.

Japan focused on trade, selling cars and electronics in the newly independent countries. Within a decade or so, Leyland, Morris, Anglia, Bedford and other British models left the Kenyan market. Even the really British Land Rover was later sold to Indians.

English and their religion remained the key legacies of the British presence in Kenya. Some would add plantations and Britons who became Kenya citizens. The decline of British influence in Kenya in the last 50 years has not been well documented.

The most recent evidence of fading of British influence, or do I say imperial, is changing Barclays to ABSA. Even their religious legacy is under threat from locally grown churches.

Give credit where it’s due, Britons despite Brexit are fighting back softly; their universities are busy recruiting Kenyan students, who now prefer to stay in Kenya or go to America. Seen their billboards on roadsides?

Americans have lately mimicked Japanese and Chinese in focusing where it matters, economics. After years watching hamburgers on American movies, they have come ashore.

Americans used movies to get our attention, then with devolution, saw their chance to get into the Kenyan market like Japanese after uhuru. Their cars are here and so are their eateries and hotels. Their hotels welcome you from the airport to the CBD.

Chinese entry was most ingenious through the Government, ensuring less competition and some would say less scrutiny. They also quickly learnt our consumption behaviour and love for cheap things or do I say affordable.

Did Americans realise the Japanese and Chinese are taking over the Kenyan market? Or are they logically extending their cultural influence into the economic arena? Do Americans have a Ticad equivalent?

Interestingly, Nigerians followed the American model in getting a piece of the Kenyan market, they started with Afrosinema, then investment and marrying our girls. Can you list Nigerian-owned businesses in Kenya?

With Kenyans tuned to global consumption patterns but too engrossed in politics at the county and national level, from handshake to Building Bridges Initiative and Punguza Mizigo, other countries are busy strategising on how to share our market. Have you noticed entries to Kenyan market like Turkish, Brazilian, French and even wine from Moldova?

One could add that fear is aiding entry into the Kenya market. The terror attacks had the unintended consequence of making Kenyans feel fearful. Such a state of fear can be good for anyone entering our market. Beyond piracy, we have not analysed the long term effects of Al Shaabab. It may surprise us in the future.

Ticad and other meetings want to uplift Africa economies, but they also leave no doubt that Africa’s market is up for grabs, and not by Africans. The taking over of the African markets is part of the long game as we spectate.

Why doesn’t Africa initiate meetings like Ticad? Don’t we see the global trends and the key players in the long game? How does one country like Japan, with a population of 127 million, host Africna countries with a population of 1.2 billion people?

When are we going to start holding conferences and meetings aimed at exploring markets outside Africa, including in space? Interestingly Africa is exporting missionaries to developed countries, but will entrepreneurs and investors follow?

-The writer is an associate professor at the University Of Nairobi School Of Business.

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