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India makes a comeback in Africa

Martina Schwikowski
December 6, 2019

India is playing catch-up in Africa compared to China. At the moment, the trade mainly resolves around oil. But with much in common, India is looking to deepen the relationship with African countries.

India's Prime Mnister Narendra Modi stands in front of a banner showing India and Africa maps entwined.
India's Prime Minister Narenra Modi speaks during the inaugural India-Africa Forum Summit in 2015Image: Reuters/A. Abidi

China's interest in Africa has long been documented but India, Asia's second biggest economy, is also increasing its footprint on the continent. India's trade with Africa is flourishing like never before, so much so that in 2016, it became Africa's second most important trading partner after China.

Although China's trading volume with African countries is still three times higher, India is catching up. According to United Nations figures, India-Africa trade has grown at an average annual rate of 17.2% since 2001.

Read more:Attacks on Africans expose India's racist inclinations 

"These are incredible dimensions that were unthinkable twenty years ago," said Philipp Gieg, a political scientist and India expert at the University of Würzburg in Germany. "With this rapid growth in trade with Africa, India has overtaken even the former colonial powers Great Britain and France," he told DW.

Historical bonds

Indian and Africa had forged ties because of their colonial history but in the last decades, their relationship had languished.

"We had strong ties in the colonial past, then globalization intervened," says Africa expert Ajay Kumar Dubey, a professor at India's Jawalharlal Nehru University.

It was not until the 1990s, after India liberalized its economy, that it started reviving trade with African countries.

Initially, India concentrated primarily on the nations of southern and eastern Africa, where it has the strongest historical ties.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Rwanda's President Paul Kagame
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Rwanda's President Paul Kagame during a visit in 2018 – India isn't just focusing on English-speaking African countriesImage: Getty Images/AFP/C. Ndegeya

Some 3 million people of Indian origin live on the continent. More than 1 million of these call South Africa home while Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda also have large numbers of diaspora Indians. Many Indians were brought by the British to Africa as indentured laborers to work on sugar cane plantations, mining or railroad construction.

Read more:Have the BRICS hit a wall? 

Now, though, Indian companies are increasingly active in other regions of Africa, notably in resource-rich, English-speaking countries such as Ghana and Nigeria.

Hunger for natural resources

The driving force behind the rapid growth of Indian-African trade: the subcontinent's hunger for primary commodities and natural resources – especially oil for India's growing energy needs.

"A growing economy needs raw materials, and oil was a deciding factor to look towards Africa," said Philipp Gieg.

A worker inspects a pipe on an oil drilling platform
Oil makes up around 40% of the exports from African countries to IndiaImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Utomi Ekpei

Africa's main exports to India are crude oil, gold, coal and other minerals whereas India primarily exports refined petroleum and pharmaceuticals. These two products make up 40% of total exports to African markets, according to a 2018 analysis of African and Indian trade by the two countries export banks.

"Two thirds of all AIDS medicines distributed by aid organizations in Africa are bought from India," explains Gieg.

India also exports smaller percentages of road vehicles, textiles and yarns, and cereals to African markets.

Ties reinvigorated under Modi

The importance of the African continent for India today is demonstrated by the "10 Guiding Principles for India-Africa Engagement, which were announced by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July 2018 during a speech before the Ugandan parliament.

"Africa will be at the top of our priorities," Modi said at the time.

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Although India is making inroads on the continent, China will still be Africa's leading trading partner for a long time to come, said political scientist Gieg.

As a nation, China is more industrialized and has lower levels poverty at home, as well as having a ten-year lead in developing ties in Africa. 

Business first

There are certain parallels between both India and China with their business first attitudes.

"India says it doesn't interfere in the affairs of sovereign states. It's motto is: 'ask us what you need and we see if we can deliver'," said Gareth Price, South Asia expert at Chatham House, the London-based think tank.

But there are also differences.

If India is doing something, it does it with local labor rather than importing workers from home like the Chinese do, said Price, which is a "selling point".

India wants more of a global role

India's commitment to Africa also underscores its political aspiration to speak for the countries of the Global South.

Read more:China's 'New Silk Road' - perception and reality 

"We were the first country to embark on South-South cooperation," emphasizes Africa expert, Ajay Kumar Dubey.

He says it's no coincidence that Indian Prime Minister Modi emphasizes the common historical struggle of Indians and Africans against the colonial powers in the Guiding Principles.

"Together, India and Africa, where one third of humanity live, want to work for a just and democratic world order where they both have a voice and a role," Dubey said.

Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa