It is good to see movement to deepen the trade and investment partnership between Africa and the Caribbean. Indeed, just recently, the Africa Export Import Bank announced that they would be opening an office in Barbados and have committed USD1.5 billion to help advance a trade partnership with the Caribbean. This follows the AfriCaribbean Trade and Investment Forum that took place last September in the Caribbean. We need to maintain this momentum since it is high time that we build on our inextricable and deeply intertwined history and bonds with Africa for the benefit of both the people of Africa and the Caribbean.
However, to achieve concrete progress, a lot of work must be done. According to the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) Trade Map, in 2021, Africa’s exports to CARICOM countries and the Dominican Republic represented a mere 0.001% of Africa’s total exports. For us in the Region, our exports as a percentage of total exports, just 1.4% go to Africa, with petroleum products being the main trade between CARICOM and West Africa, particularly with Gabon and Ghana. . In essence, the limited trade we have with Africa is dominated by just a few products and a small number of countries. The question then arises, how do we take our trade and investment relationship with Africa to the next level leveraging on our excellent people-to-people, historical and cultural ties given the existing patterns and size of trade?
To begin with, in redefining this relationship, the Caribbean must have a forensic focus. Firstly, we must recognise that Africa is not a monolith. There are 54 countries on this vast continent with acute differences in terms of regions and subregions. Just in terms of language and in addition to the multiplicity of local, national, and regional variants, large swathes of Africa speak English, French and Portuguese. Just take one country like Tanzania where I served and lived in my first stint on the continent, it has over 120 ethnic groups and dialects. Nigeria, the largest country on the continent is even more complex as is South Africa, one of the twenty richest economies on the planet. Therefore, for us in the Caribbean as a small region dealing with a vast continent, it is important to recognise that whilst politically we want a greater relationship with Africa, on the economic front, we need to focus on fewer countries in the first instance.
Secondly, we should therefore start where our strengths lay, we need to build on the existing foundation we have in West Africa. Some businesses such as Republic Bank Ltd have a well-established presence. Similarly, in the area of Financial Technology, a partnership was formed among Barbados Global Integrated FinTech Solutions (GIFTS), iPay Anywhere (iPay) and TelNet, a Nigerian digital transformation company, which will ultimately give access to 200 million customers through the TelNet database. On the flip side, GIFTS has partnered with Ghana-based fintech firm Zeepay to offer Barbadians- Zeemoney, the mobile wallet which gives users the ability to transfer funds to other users of the Zeemoney platform. This is the perfect example of the reciprocal opportunities that exist between the two regions and the benefit of a clear focus reinforced by concrete action. Success begets success and lays the strongest foundation for an expanding partnership.
Thirdly, we need to transition from a traditional representation approach to diplomacy to one that is commercial, building on existing diplomatic relationships and creating new ones. A few Caribbean countries have already started on this path. However, it cannot be individual and ad-hoc, it has to be part of a coherent and systematic approach to commercial diplomacy. Related to this is building relationships with countries in Africa akin to our size and share common concerns on issues such as climate vulnerability and the need for concessional financing. Island countries and small states on the continent such as Seychelles, Mauritius, Botswana, Sierra Leone, and Namibia will be natural allies and champions for us in the inner sanctum of African decision making at the African Union and elsewhere.
Looking ahead we have the option of proceeding with business as usual and proceeding incrementally which will see yet another opportunity lost. Alternatively, we can advance a transformational agenda that can reset and reshape the trade and investment relationship with Africa. Having lived, served and travelled extensively across Africa, I have seen first-hand the massive opportunities for us in this time of Rising Africa. To take our relationship to this next level, we need a sustained focus to build on existing relationships and forge key partnerships on the continent.
Deodat Maharaj is the Executive Director of the Caribbean Export Development Agency and can be reached at: [email protected]