I was watching the news last night. In Italy, one of the most discussed topics these days is the ‘Salvini Decree’. Salvini has been Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Interior since June 2018. His decree proposes measures on a variety of issues, including immigration. The freshly elected government’s pre-election promise pertained to fighting back against the immigration from Africa, mainly because Salvini thinks that Africans are a threat to Italy’s finances and security. He asserts that he would ‘hopefully’ save the 5 billion Euros that Italy alone spends annually for these Africans and give it back to the Italians, where it belongs. While discussing his ideas during a summit in Vienna last September, he used the terms ‘Africans’ and ‘slaves’ together in one sentence, which ignited a series of bureaucratic problems with African states. And so the TV story goes on. Unwilling to watch it anymore, I decide to switch the channel.
On another TV channel, the news is being reported from a high school classroom in Senegal, the West African state, where the reporter is interviewing students about why they study Turkish. The students reply, ‘We must learn this language to be able to go to Turkey to have a university degree’. In the last decade, the number of African students studying at one of the 180 Turkish universities has augmented significantly, also thanks to the scholarships provided by the Turkish government at undergraduate, graduate and doctorate levels. One could ask, ‘What does a Senegaleese student do in Turkey?’ However, the right question should be, ‘What is Turkey doing in Sub-Saharan Africa?’
Following China and India, Turkey has emerged as the country with the most-increased trade with sub-Saharan Africa during the last decade. Back in 2005, Turkey set up an official policy of ‘Opening to Africa’. Since then, various trade missions have been run, numerous bilateral treaties signed (on cooperation, investment protection, and avoidance of double taxation), export-credit facilities opened, and business and economic summits organized. Just Erdoğan, in the last 13 years, has visited 23 African countries 39 times. In fact, the number of Turkish embassies in the continent has reached 41. Turkey also became a non-regional member of the African Development Bank. Today, Turkish Airlines is a leading international operator in Africa, flying to 52 destinations in 34 countries. The result is that the bilateral trade volume between Turkey and African states has reached $21 billion, which is pretty much equal to Turkey’s trade volume with Italy, and 2.5% of Turkey’s GDP. More importantly, a pace for the development of Turkish-African relations has been set.
If by any chance you travel to Ghana, the West African nation, you will land at an airport built by Turks; you will likely stay at a hotel whose electricity is provided by Turks (35% of the country’s power is provided by Turkish companies); and you might drink tap water that is cleaned by Turks (who built water treatment plants to solve the ‘clean water’ problem). If you somehow traverse the Mauritanian seas, you may easily notice one of the 40 Turkish fishing vessels around you. If you get sick in Somalia, it is highly likely you will be taken to the Tayyip Erdoğan Hospital, on a road built by Turkey’s development authority. Turks are building the 400 km railway in Ethiopia that will be ‘life-changing’ for the country. In Ethiopia alone, 160 investment projects owned by Turkish companies have been operational during the last decade, having created 30 thousand permanent and temporary jobs for the Ethiopians.
It is true that by far, the strongest Turkish business presence in sub-Saharan Africa is in the construction sector. However, in recent years, other sectors have followed suit. If you travel in Kenya or Ghana and stop by a bar for a drink, you will see that sports betting is quite famous in these countries, probably due to their passion for sports. And yes, the leading sports betting company in these countries, Safaribet, is Turkish. It expects to generate a turnover of $100 million in 2018. Such Turkish investment stories in Africa vary, from the technology sector to apparel, from agriculture to healthcare.
The World Bank estimates that in 2018, 6 out of the 10 fastest growing nations in the world will be from Africa. Needless to say, Africa has vast natural resources and a young, vibrant population. Turkey surely cannot match China’s financial muscle, which has resulted in the latter’s trade volume with Africa approaching $170 billion, second only to the sum of all EU countries. However, the sectors to which Turkish investments are directed have lately witnessed a broader diversification, and the steps taken so far will help accelerate the future growth of trade between Africa and Turkey.
Turkey does not neglect to utilize soft power instruments in Africa, such as humanitarian and development aids, which provide it with ‘a social licence to operate’. It has financed and built a research and training hospital in Sudan, which also attracts patients from Chad, Cameroon, and Gambia, amongst other regions. It has provided annual contributions to the African Union since 2009. Over the past five years, almost half a billion dollars of humanitarian aid has been provided only to Somalia, where Turkey has also built a military base.
Coming back to Italy, its trade with Africa is estimated to be €34 billion a year (equal to 2% of its GDP), and the country is active mostly in the North. Italian activity is led mainly by industrial giants like ENI, Salini-Impregilo, Leonardo-Finmeccanica, and Ferrero, all of which have been present in the continent for several decades. The presence of Italian SMEs in sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, is very limited, most probably because they are not as much supported or encouraged. A viable alternative for them is to explore the opportunities in Africa via Turkey, a country with which Italy also has a customs union. Partnerships or collaborations with Turkish firms can open up the doors in this difficult but dynamic part of the world where the Turks have not only accumulated crucial know-how, but also operate within advantageous bilateral treaties.
Lately, Turkey’s economy has been going through some challenging times; however, economies move in cycles, and Turkey will eventually recover. Italy’s politics have also been going through some challenging times recently, but political parties come and go, and Italy will continue to be an important global player. The long-term success of entrepreneurs results from their ability to look beyond macroeconomic and political challenges and find opportunities where present, like in Africa, and using the means necessary to get there, like cementing ties with a strategic partner in Turkey.
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