Japanese government urges private sector to ditch Africa caution – African Business

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Japanese private companies have traditionally taken a cautious approach to investment in Africa, balancing the continent’s strategic importance with a careful approach to risk. However, Japanese investors are far behind their Asian counterparts and Western investors when it comes to Africa. This is due to the cautious attitude of the Japanese private sectors.

The Japanese investment stock in subsaharan Africa has been falling in recent years. It fell from $12bn to less than $6bn last year, with 70% of it coming from South Africa. The Japanese government hopes to change this.

Japan adopts a private investment approach to Africa

Tokyo has a longstanding ambition to create a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” – including embracing African coastal states such as Kenya, Mozambique, Somalia and Tanzania – in a bid to to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Tokyo tried to move away from a policy centered on official development assistance (ODA), at the last TICAD in Yokohoma in 2019, to a policy based more on private investment.

“The Japanese government will do everything possible to support Japanese companies expanding into Africa,” the late prime minister Shinzo Abe said at the conference.

Africa was once viewed as a source for raw materials for Japanese industries. Now, the government sees Africa as a potential market for the private sector.

Nowhere is this shift in focus more obvious than in Japan’s vital auto industry. Japan’s commercial relationship with South Africa, one of its main partners, was historically based on its needs for rare-earth minerals and metals – such as palladium and rhodium – which are key inputs in the auto manufacting process. 

But Africa itself has now become a major importer and manufacturing destination for Japanese car companies, especially since the trading arm of Japan’s Toyota Group, Toyota Tsusho, bought the French distribution company CFAO in 2012. This made Toyota Tsusho, the largest Japanese private investor in Africa, the largest. It has a network that includes every country in Africa with 22,000 employees.

Investors can be confident in the latest results of the Toyota Tshusho African Business’ fiscal year ended March 2022. The revenue (sales), reached 1 trillion Japanese yen ($7.4bn) and was the highest ever recorded. 

Toyoto is the leader, and other Japanese auto manufacturers follow. Component maker Yazaki and wiring system firm Sumitomo announced plans to build wiring and parts facilities in Morocco worth more than $100 million.

Growing energy links 

This is the approach that the Japanese government hopes will be replicated in the energy sector. The government’s Basic Energy Plan includes a 2030 electricity energy mix target of 36-38% from renewables, 20-22% from nuclear, 22% from gas and 19% from coal. Africa is expected be a major supplier.

Japanese utility companies will likely take 30% of Mozambique’s LNG, which is home to the third-largest natural resources in Africa, and offload it to Japan. Japan, an ally of the West could increasingly look to Africa to reduce its imports of 10% LNG from Russia.

Four major Japanese private banks – MUFG Bank, Mizuho Bank, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking and Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank – and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation have invested approximately $14bn to develop the project, which should make Mozambique the largest recipient of Japan’s FDI on the continent.

Toa Corporation and Penta-Ocean Construction are also undertaking a $19bn expansion of Port of Nacala in Japan to ensure the future trade of LNG. The project is being seen as a demonstration of Abe’s vision for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”.

Instead of focusing on Africa as a source of raw materials, Japan’s private sector can play an even larger role in the development of Africa’s energy infrastructure. 

East Africa’s infrastructure and energy sectors have been particular areas of interest – in Kenya, the role of Japanese companies has been decisive in building the geothermal plant of Olkaria, which allowed the country to be among the world’s top 10 producers of geothermal energy.

The inauguration of the Japanese financed Solibra junction interchange in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in December 2019. (Photo by SIA KAMBOU / AFP).

Concentrate on startups

This represents a shift away from traditional aid and development assistance in favor of a more productive private sector relationship. Japan’s development agency, JICA, has seen its role as an incubator of Japanese companies in Africa increase over the last few years, reflecting Japan’s call for more public-private partnerships.

JICA has helped connect Japanese and African entrepreneurs through networking events such as the last TICAD where private companies were recognized as official partners.

Japan is also looking to expand its cooperation and take advantage of the extensive business networks of third parties like the US, India, Australia, and EU.

Africa is one of the regions targeted by the Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure between the European Union and Japan, which aims to build infrastructure and enhance connectivity in the same regions targeted by China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

It’s not just major industries like energy and auto that stand to benefit. These emerging networks have enabled Japanese investors to enter Africa’s diverse venture capital market. They are financing innovative start-ups in a variety of sectors, including fintech, retail, and entertainment. 

Kepple African Ventures was founded in 2019 by Takahiro Kanzaki, a Japanese entrepreneur. The company has invested in more 100 companies in 11 African markets, with the first cheques ranging from $50K up to $150K. Kazaki is one rare Japanese entrepreneur who has traveled to Africa to examine the potential for business investment. 

In an interview with TechCabal in 2021, he said that Japanese investors were not lacking capital or willingness to invest in Africa, but rather “it’s about the shortage of capable and experienced talents who can manage the funds in Africa. It’s very difficult to find talent who understand the African market and who can commit their lives to Africa.”

JICA has also established Next Innovation with Japan (NINJA) as a support initiative for African startups who are developing innovative business models and technologies that solve social problems.

The government hopes this new focus on SMEs is just one piece of a newly assertive approach that will allow Japanese businesses to move past the excessive caution of the past.

Source: african.business

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