My Japanology / Africa has become Japan’s mutually profitable partner

Koji Ito/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Ambassador Solomon Maina speaks during an interview

The Japan News A major global platform to support Africa’s development, the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, will be held in Nairobi on Aug. 27 and 28, the first such event to take place in Africa. Kenyan Ambassador Solomon Maina, who represents the host country, spoke about the meaning of having TICAD in Africa and key aspects of this year’s conference. As a career diplomat stationed in Japan, he also discussed challenges that Japanese society is facing.

Q: Later in August, TICAD will be held in Nairobi. How would you describe the significance of holding TICAD in Africa?

Solomon Maina: TICAD coming to Africa certainly is a major milestone achievement. Considering the existence of TICAD over the last 23 years, all the five previous summits have been held here in Japan. So it was decided that Africa has to be the venue of TICAD VI.

TICAD coming to Africa certainly is a clear recognition that Africa has come of age in a mutual, profitable partnership with Japan. It will give our African brothers and sisters, men and women, ordinary citizens, the opportunity to realize that sense of ownership of TICAD and appreciate its contributions to Africa’s growth and development. And finally, this will be the first time that the private sector is being given the opportunity to weigh in on Africa’s development. It’s high time that the private sector joins to engage in Africa’s industrialization and economic growth.

The conference cannot only focus on aid-based assistance. We’re currently moving away from ODA [official development assistance] aspects and toward trading, hence the importance of the private sector. The private sector needs to have a strong foothold in the TICAD process.

Q: What is the expected result of the TICAD VI conference?

A: We are expecting TICAD VI to come out with very important resolutions. We have to remember that during the last TICAD in Yokohama, the leaders decided to shorten the period between the sessions. Henceforth, TICAD will be held every three years. Now, the Yokohama action plan, which is based on six pillars, that is still ongoing. The pillars — which are focused on boosting economic growth; accelerating infrastructure and capacity development; empowering farmers; promoting sustainable and resilient growth; creating an inclusive society; and finally looking at the issues of consolidating peace, stability, democracy and good governance — they’re all being implemented.

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  • Koji Ito/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Ambassador Solomon Maina at the Kenyan Embassy in Meguro Ward, Tokyo

Now, as you are aware, the world has changed since TICAD V. We have recommended that there be a platform for the private sector to continue engaging, so we’re hopeful that, if leaders and the private sector will agree, we can form a Japan-Africa business partnership to give businesses a different platform for engaging, as opposed to waiting for the summits.

TICAD, through Japan’s chairmanship, was the first of these types of conferences, formed 23 years ago. When the rest of the world was looking at Africa as a continent that would not help itself and there were issues of donor fatigue, TICAD came in and made a major difference. FOCAC [Forum on China-Africa Cooperation] and the U.S.-Africa, India-Africa and Turkey-Africa summits followed later on.

The growth rate you’re witnessing in Africa on average — some countries are doing exceptionally well, others are somewhere in the middle — but the average is about 4.5 percent. Africa is the fastest-growing continent. Thus, the potential for investors and the attraction of this wonderful continent is very visible. We are talking about a population of about 1.1 billion people, and half of that number is the youth, who are becoming educated and are on average going to school.

In certain countries you’ll find that the youth are IT-savvy innovators who are founding lots of start-ups. In July last year, when U.S. President Barack Obama co-chaired with [Kenyan] President Uhuru Kenyatta the entrepreneurship summit Nairobi, the CEO of Microsoft launched Windows 10, the same program you have on your computer, in Nairobi. And why was that? Why not in Silicon Valley or Paris or here in Tokyo? It’s because that niche of the youth has become very vibrant.

The issues of diseases have emerged very prominently, including the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The issues of terrorism and violent extremism are also emerging elements that Nairobi will be looking at under the theme of social stability — one of the themes of TICAD VI.

Lack of information

Q: You have previously mentioned in a magazine article that Japanese companies are very cautious about making investments in Africa. Why do you think they are so cautious?

A: It is essentially the lack of information on the business climate in Africa. Africa is a big continent. When a tourist goes to Kenya, he or she says they’ve been to Africa. No, they’ve just been to Kenya. Africa is diverse.

Businessmen also look into the issue of risks. Because of the lack of information, they always believe that there’s serious risk here and they can’t invest their money. They think terrorism is taking place all the time. You do recall what happened at the Westgate Mall [terrorist attack that killed at least 67 people in 2013] — that was a serious impingement of Kenya’s sovereignty by these al-Shabaab terrorists [who are linked to Al-Qaida]. But even now, when I meet Japanese businesspeople, they still talk about it. So it remains in their mind and they doubt that Kenya is right for investment.

I always tell business people to look at the statistics that are coming out of Kenya. Our GDP is $61 billion. Our growth rate is 6 percent. The highest contributor to our GDP is the service industry. It generates 61 percent, well above agriculture — a mainstay — tourism, horticulture and manufacturing. It is service, and service is people, you and me.

What are we as African ambassadors here doing? How aggressively are we engaging the Japanese public? Are we giving lectures on a continuous basis so that the ordinary Japanese person understands Africa? In my conference room downstairs we have a lot of students who come from Japanese high schools to hear about Kenya. We do this on a continuous basis.

Q: You have traveled to many parts of Japan. Based on your observations, what is the biggest challenge that Japanese society is facing?

A: Over the last year and eight months I’ve had the opportunity to travel quite a lot in Japan. By virtue of Kenya hosting TICAD, I’ve been invited to so many places to deliver lectures and talks. I’ve traveled to Kobe, Nagoya, Okinawa, Yokohama and other cities. I’ve been all the way to Toyama to see the dam there, a spectacular construction site considering that you did that long ago. It’s still generating electricity for the people of Osaka.

The most pressing issue from what I see is certainly the population issue. I saw some statistics that said that one out of every four Japanese is over 65 years old. Your population is 120 million or so. That is a very difficult task for the third largest economy in the world. You need to be able to sustain your growth rate, and that is done by the young people. The young generation is the driver of the economy.

The rural population is moving to the city, but the city is obviously very expensive. If it continues going down, it will be very difficult.

Q: As the ambassador of Kenya, you were invited in May to a special committee of the Diet in Japan. What was it like to speak to the Diet?

A: My invitation to appear in front of the Diet committee responsible for ODA was a major highlight of my career. I’ve been in the diplomatic service now for 30 years, and these kinds of invitations don’t usually happen.

We have to recognize that over the last 60 years Japan’s ODA has played a transformational role not only in Africa but in Southeast Asia. It has remained a pillar of Japan’s international engagement. That’s why the Diet committee on ODA called us to appear in front of them. They wanted to see which way we were moving.

But I don’t see a decline happening right now. In effect, with the private sector coming in, it complements the work of the ODA. ODA is no longer the exclusive channel of cooperation. Countries are more receptive to business partnerships. That’s what is happening now.

The fact that three of your major banks will be in Nairobi during TICAD VI says a lot about these kinds of business partnerships. Mizuho, Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ and Sumitomo-Mitsui — these are big banks in Japan, and they’ll be in Kenya. So this kind of partnership is creeping in a very positive manner. That’s why I’m saying that with the TICAD framework, the ODA-oriented programs will also be supported by the private sector.

Indeed, the infrastructure development that is taking place in Africa is done by Japanese companies. Yes, granted, it comes via ODA, but the front is by the private sector. So, we hope that the paradigm shift that is taking place with the private sector coming in will position Japan even more positively. Japanese companies that have never totally engaged in Africa are coming to Kenya with a platform. I’m sure this will be positive for Japan and Africa in this very important, mutual, profitable partnership. I know ODA will remain very strong.

Sports as Kenya’s image

Q: Kenyan athletes are very popular in Japan, but there was recently a doping scandal involving Kenyan athletes that shocked some Japanese. How is the Kenyan government dealing with the issue?

A: Indeed, our sportsmen and women have been critical ambassadors for Kenya abroad. You do recall last year during the World Athletic Championships in Beijing, Kenya was number one. We defeated the United States, Russia, everybody. The government has always remained very committed to ensuring that this success is not interfered with or dented at all. [In the case mentioned,] that particular agent is currently in the court of law on the charges of conspiracy to cause injury by doping to the reputation and profession of Kenyan athletes.

It was a small number [of athletes], but as you say Japanese nationals were shocked. It’s important for me to tell you that in April this year our parliament passed the anti-doping law, which the president subsequently signed into law.

The government is very resolute that we cannot allow certain agents to dent this important pillar of Kenya’s image. On the internet you can see that there’s an agent who was been arraigned in court.

Sports is an important component of Kenya’s image. We’re happy that quite a number of our sportsmen and women have been trained here in Japan — world champions like Douglas Wakiihuri and Tegla Loroupe were trained here in Chiba Prefecture. There are still many who are undergoing training in your camps.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Staff Writer Takeshi Kuroiwa.

Solomon Maina was born in March 1960. He joined Kenya’s Foreign Ministry in 1987 after obtaining a master’s degree from Ohio University in the United States. As a diplomat, he has worked at Kenyan high commissions in Britain, Pakistan and Uganda, and the Kenyan Embassy in Italy. He was promoted to the rank of ambassador in March 2009. He has held his present post since November 2014. He is married with two children.

(From August 27, 2016, issue)

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