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Is China Really Helping Africa?

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The past three decades have seen a marked step change in Africa’s international relations. While geography historically favoured a European focus – especially in North Africa – the continent has shifted its gaze to the East.

China has catapulted from being a relatively small investor in the continent to becoming Africa’s largest economic partner. Africa-China trade is poised to grow 20% year on year making it seem like dragons are the new king of the African jungle.

Investment in Africa has however been structured around Chinese ownership, with roughly 90% of firms either majority controlled or owned outright by Chinese nationals. There are estimated to be over 10,000 Chinese firms in Africa that have created work for several million Africans. This economic stimulus continues to have significant economic impact in communities riddled with historic economic disparities.

Chinese firms have shown remarkable prowess in sectors such as manufacturing, resources, and infrastructure. One of the first famous examples is the Tanzania-Zambia Railway built between 1970 and 1975, for which China provided a zero-interest loan of RMB980 million ($150 million). Sectors including agriculture, banking, insurance, transport and logistics, housing, information communications technology and telecommunications are poised to see significant shifts to Chinese firms. Chinese firms have the benefit of tried-and-tested business models which bear great similarities to the African marketplace.

‘It’s Africa’s Time For Animation’

To ensure the sustainability of the Africa-China partnership, three key concerns need to be addressed: Corruption, personal safety, and language and cultural barriers.

Corruption has thrived in Africa’s current climate of political and economic impunity. Corruption creates and increases poverty and exclusion. While corrupt individuals with deep political ties enjoy a lavish life, millions of Africans are deprived of their basic needs like food, health, education, housing, access to clean water and sanitation. Violence and crime across the continent derail efforts to encourage community building and foreign direct investment. Language and cultural barriers can lead to clashes that lead to misunderstanding and ignorance of local regulations.

If these problems are left unaddressed, the misunderstandings – and potentially serious long-term social issues – could weaken the overall sustainability of the Africa-China relationship.

Chinese aid to Africa has been criticized as being a form of economic colonization. Politically aid has been used to create strong bilateral ties between African countries and China. Proponents highlight the structural benefits brought about by aid; downplaying the benefits to China in the form of profit, resource extraction, and the acquisition of service contracts to Chinese companies. In a nutshell, whichever country offers the greatest economic gains based on China’s growth strategy becomes a target for aid. Currently this strategy is geared towards partnering with resource-rich countries, which often lack the political and economic structures required to efficiently and effectively manage such bilateral trade opportunities.

The key challenge is to ensure that there is an effective political and economic strategy to piggyback off Chinese intervention to ensure broad based economic empowerment.

Private Money Worth Its Weight In Gold

Part of this strategy should include elements like building a middle class in Africa, developing African entrepreneurs, allocating factors of production, industry 4.0, innovative distribution, and public-private partnerships.

The current economic polarization in Africa needs to be addressed by actively creating a middles class. Clan-based economic feudalism needs to be replaced by an educated and economically engaged middle class. Economic empowerment in turn will promote political development leading to healthier international trade relations.

Entrepreneurship, while still in its African infancy, has made significant strides both domestically and internationally. Agriculture, manufacturing, retail, and tourism can act as an employment sponge for basic labour intensive work. While not a cornerstone employment strategy, it will lead to rapid, broad-based job creation, often requiring very basic skill sets. Further vocational training can be provided in these sectors to prevent generational skills gaps.

Effective allocation of factors of production – specifically land ownership – will be critical. It’s a sensitive subject given Africa’s colonial past, however it’s one governments need to address to start an ambitious national agricultural plan. The rapid growth of Africa’s population presents significant opportunities for our poultry and grain sector.

Industry 4.0 will make global manufacturing much more competitive in the future. Traditional industrial economies, such as Germany and the United States, expect the fourth industrial revolution to create many competitive advantages, reversing the trend to relocate manufacturing processes to low-cost countries and create new high-tech opportunities at home. Africa is ideally positioned to leapfrog into Industry 4.0 by adopting best practices seen in developed countries. This will enable African-owned manufacturers to effectively compete with Chinese companies.

Africa is at the tip of an economic renaissance that will see opportunities being created that were considered impossible a few decades ago. But, this requires strong leadership in both politics and business. Citizens in turn will have to hold their political leaders accountable, specifically promoting broad-based economic empowerment, to ensure that the maximum number of people benefit from this growth. – Written by Johan Hanekom

Johan Hanekom

Johan is a globally recognized expert on strategy, innovation, and growth with an emphasis on corporate entrepreneurship. A believer in social entrepreneurship, his paper while at Oxford focused on developing a nation of social entrepreneurs in Africa.

Current Affairs

Famed Cullinan Mine Banks On Big Diamonds To Drive Down Debt

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Maipato Kesebang normally grows maize, jugo beans and sweet reed on her 20-hectare plot of land northwest of Gaborone, Botswana’s capital. But last year, worsening drought and heatwaves destroyed much of her harvest.

“The little that grew feebly we just ate. Nothing was left for storage or to sell,” she said.

Usually when her crops fail she turns to collecting wild spinach to sell, to support her two sons. But even that is now disappearing as climate change brings harsher weather and more people turn to harvesting the vegetable to survive, she said.

So last year, for the first time, she signed up to Ipelegeng, a long-standing government safety net program that provides temporary jobs for those struggling to make ends meet.

Now she works one month out of four cutting back overgrown grass and trees, desilting dams and drains, collecting litter or cleaning streets.

She’d prefer to work every month – but demand is so high for the jobs that there aren’t enough slots, she said.

“We only work for a month, then we go home and wait for three months before we apply again. That’s because there are too many people now needing the relief,” said Kesebang, as she pulled weeds on her parched plot of land.

As harsher droughts and hotter weather linked to climate change ruin crops more frequently in Botswana, the country is facing a new challenge: growing demand for social assistance programs.

SWELLING RANKS

About 68,000 people worked for Ipelegeng as of March 2018, according to figures from Statistics Botswana, up from about 64,000 in March 2016. Of those on the rolls, about 47,000 were women, according to the agency.

To accommodate rising demand, Botswana’s government last August increased the number of Ipelegeng slots by 5,000, after declaring 2018-2019 an expected drought year.

That will cost the country an extra $2.7 million – money that it does not readily have as its national budget does not specifically set money aside for drought relief, said Billyboy Siabatho, deputy director of the rural development council at the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development.

“Often, when drought comes, we end up borrowing from funds that would have been set aside for infrastructure development projects,” he said.

Ipelegeng’s main objective is to provide short term employment and relief, while helping carry out development efforts the country sees as important, he said.

“During drought periods, there are fewer farming activities. Therefore most people relocate from farms to villages, looking for alternative sources of income,” Siabatho said.

“Due to limited job opportunities in rural areas, most people rely on Ipelegeng as an alternative source of employment,” he noted.

But as droughts continue to worsen in southern Africa, Siabatho wonders whether the government will be able to keep pace with growing demand.

He also worries whether people will begin to see dependence on safety nets as an easier route than farming, as crop failures worsen.

Botswana’s government, aware of the risks from worsening drought, began in December working on a new drought management strategy that aims to improve planning and budgeting for threats and not focus simply on responding to them, Siabatho said.

‘BEANS ARE BURNING’

For Kesebang, such help can’t come soon enough. Her farm, a few kilometers out of the town of Molepolole, sits in Kweneng District, which has the highest poverty levels in the country, of over 50 percent, according to 2018 report by Statistics Botswana.

Most of the 567 pula ($55) she earns each month she works for Ipelegeng goes to keep her youngest son in primary school.

“I buy books and uniform. Often nothing is really left. Life has become difficult,” she said.

The new planting season isn’t looking much more promising either, she said. Most of the maize, beans, sweet reed and watermelon she planted in late December are struggling, she said.

“The beans are already burning. I have no hope of harvesting maize. Maybe the watermelons will survive,” she said, hopefully.

She’s already given up plowing three-quarters of her farm, to avoid greater losses, she said, though she has allowed a friend to try her luck farming a four-hectare section.

For now, Kesebeng heads to town each day to join hundreds of other temporary workers trimming tree branches that obstruct traffic.

Harsher weather isn’t hitting only the poorest farmers, either. Oduetse Koboto, who heads the environment and climate change unit at the United Nations Development Programme, said he saw little harvest from his own farm last year, in part because of floods.

“I planted tomatoes on 1.5 hectares. I expected to make 200,000 pula ($19,000). I lost. I had also planted a hectare of green peppers, expecting 600,000 pula ($58,000) from it. I lost all that too,” he said.

His 600 mango trees produced not a single useable fruit, he added, and “this is regardless of the fact that I use drip irrigation, solar pumping, and spent on farm maintenance all year round”.

“Imagine what the poor in villages must be going through,” he said.

RISING COSTS

Botswana for over a decade has invested in helping farmers boost grain production and improve food security, including through measures such as better access to credit, technology, seeds and water.

But with droughts worsening, improving harvests remains a challenge – and the country continues to import over 80 percent of its food from South Africa.

“Low production in the agricultural sector due to drought has led to high import bills in cereals, dairy, poultry products and feeds, to name but a few,” Siabatho said.

Costs for programs like Ipelegeng also are rising, he said, noting that the program now costs over $28 million a year to run.

For Kesebang, stress levels are also rising. After watching her new crops wilt, she was nearly hospitalized as a result of anxiety and high blood pressure, she said, and had to remain in Molepolole for two weeks.

Recent rains have now given her a bit more optimism.

“A week into February it rained at least twice. The few plants that survived are recovering. I have hope,” she said. -Reuters

Sharon Tshipa

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South Africa’s Eskom Extends Power Cuts, Needs Bailout By April

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South African power utility Eskom cut electricity for a fourth straight day on Wednesday, as the department of public enterprises warned the struggling state-owned firm needed a cash injection by April to survive.

Eskom, which supplies more than 90 percent of the power in Africa’s most industrialized economy but is laden with more than $30 billion of debt, is battling a shortage of capacity that threatens to derail government plans to lift the sluggish economy.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said last week that the government would support Eskom’s balance sheet but said details would be announced in a budget speech by the finance minister on Feb. 20.

The department of public enterprises, which oversees Eskom, said in a presentation to parliament that Eskom was technically insolvent and would “cease to exist” at the current trajectory by April, unless it gets the bailout. The minister, Pravin Gordhan, however, ruled out privatization of the utility.

The department also said Eskom was struggling to keep its mainly coal-fired plants running due to coal shortages and poor maintenance, with 40 percent of breakdowns a result of human error.

The cash-strapped company said it would cut 3,000 megawatts (MW) of power from the national grid from 0600 GMT on Wednesday, likely until 2100 GMT. This follows a similar cut on Tuesday and 4,000 MW on Monday in the worst power cuts seen in several years that drove the rand currency down on Monday. The rand was slightly firmer against the U.S. dollar on Wednesday.

Around a third of Eskom’s 45,000 MW capacity was offline on Tuesday.

The power cuts are prompting frustration among ordinary South Africans, with traffic gridlock in major cities during rush hours as traffic lights stop working and switched-off fans leave office workers sweating in the summer heat.

Business owners with no access to backup power sources have also been hit.

“We’re struggling,” said Eunice Mashaba, a manager of a textile shop north of Johannesburg who said he had to close the shop early on Tuesday because most customers do not carry cash but have to rely on debit or credit cards for payment.

Ramaphosa announced a plan last week to split Eskom into three separate entities in an effort to make it more efficient as he tries to lift the economy before an election in May, but faces opposition from powerful labor unions and from within his ruling African National Congress party. -Reuters

-Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo and Wendell Roelf

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A Bad Omen? Emerging Markets ‘Most Crowded Trade’ For First Time

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Investors made a U-turn on emerging markets, naming them the most crowded trade, in Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s survey for the first time in its history.

This marked a big reversal from last month, when fund managers said “short EM” was the third most-crowded trade – showing how fast the mood can shift in an uncertain market.

It could prove to be a bad omen for emerging markets, though, as assets named “most crowded” usually sink soon afterwards.

Previous “most crowded” trades have included Bitcoin, and the U.S. FAANG tech stocks, which led the selloff in December.

Emerging-market stocks .MSCIEF are up 7.8 percent so far this year, and flow data on Friday showed investors pumped record amounts of money into emerging stocks and bonds.

Emerging-market assets had a torrid 2018. Crises in Turkey and Argentina ripped through developing countries already suffering from a strong dollar and rising U.S. yields pushing up borrowing costs.

But a dovish turn by the Fed at the start of the year, indicating the world’s top central bank would not raise interest rates as quickly as previously expected, sparked fresh enthusiasm among investors.

Major asset managers and investment banks such as JPMorgan, Citi and BlueBay Asset Management ramped up their exposure to emerging markets in recent weeks..

The Institute of International Finance (IIF) predicted a “wall of money” was set to flood into emerging market assets.

However, there are some indications momentum may be waning. Analyzing flows of its own clients, investment bank Citi noted they had turned cautious on emerging-market assets over the last week, with both real money and leveraged investors pulling out funds following four weeks of inflows.

BAML did not specify whether the “long EM” crowded trade referred to bonds, equities or both.

Outside emerging markets, investors’ main concern remained the possibility of a global trade war. It topped the list of biggest tail risks for the ninth straight month, followed by a slowdown in China, the world’s second-largest economy, and a corporate credit crunch.

Overall, BAML’s February survey – conducted between Feb. 1 and 7, with 218 panelists managing $625 billion in total – showed investor sentiment had hardly improved. Global equity allocations fell to their lowest levels since September, 2016.

“Despite the recent rally, investor sentiment remains bearish,” said Michael Hartnett, chief investment strategist at BAML.

SECULAR STAGNATION

Investors remained worried about the global economy, with 55 percent of those surveyed bearish on both the growth and inflation outlook for the next year.

“Secular stagnation is the consensus view,” BAML strategists wrote.

Following this theme, investors were most positive on cash and, within equities, preferred high-dividend-yielding sectors like pharmaceuticals, consumer discretionary, and real estate investment trusts.

As investors added to their cash allocations, the number of fund managers overweight cash hit its highest level since January, 2009.

The least preferred sectors were those sensitive to the cycle, like energy and industrials – which BAML strategists see as good contrarian investments if “green shoots” appear in the global economy.

Worries about corporate debt were still running high, with this month’s survey showing a new high in the number of investors demanding companies reduce leverage.

Some 46 percent of fund managers find corporate balance sheets to be over-leveraged, the survey found, and 51 percent of investors want companies to use cash flow to improve their balance sheets. That’s the highest percentage since July 2009.

Europe, one of investors’ least-favored regions, showed a slight improvement. A net 5 percent reported being overweight euro zone stocks, from 11 percent underweight last month.

But investors’ reported intention to own European stocks in the next year dropped to six-year lows as the profit outlook for the region continued to lag.

Allocations to UK stocks increased slightly from last month but the UK remained investors’ “consensus underweight”, BAML said. It has been so since February 2016. -Reuters

-Josephine Mason, Helen Reid, and Karin Strohecker

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