NAIROBI: Japan takes its aid and trade show to Africa on Saturday, opening a huge two-day development conference in Kenya, hoping that quality will trump quantity in the battle for influence against cash-rich China.
It will be the first time that the conference, known as TICAD—the Tokyo International Conference on African Development—has taken place in Africa, with all five previous events hosted in Japan.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—fresh from an appearance as Super Mario at the Rio Olympics closing ceremony—will use the opportunity to meet with dozens of leaders from across Africa, among them Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma.
Officials say the Japanese premier will use the two-day gathering to unveil aid and investment projects, including those related to healthcare.
Speaking on the eve of the meeting, Kenyatta said the focus would be on industrialization, health and stability.
“We know that most nations which escape the grip of poverty do so by industrializing. Africa still has not lived up to its potential,” he said.
“Development is not something that will happen to Africa, it is Africans themselves who will win the freedom and prosperity they deserve.”
Abe pledged that Japan’s “high-quality technology and human resource development” would support industrialization, including in agriculture.
“The key to economic growth is industrialization,” he said.
Eclipsed by China
Tokyo has a well-established presence in Africa, but its financial importance to the continent has long since been eclipsed by regional rival China.
The world’s second-largest economy—a resource-hungry giant—recorded total trade with Africa of about $179 billion in 2015, dwarfing Japan’s approximately $24 billion.
“Japan has a sense of rivalry with China, which has provided large-sized assistance,” said Koichi Sakamoto, professor of regional development studies at Toyo University.
“Since Japan can’t fight China in terms of amounts of cash, it needs to stress quality,” Sakamoto added.
This weekend’s meeting is the sixth edition of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, or TICAD. The forum was first convened in 1993 and, until now, has always been held in Japan.
The move to Africa this year came at the behest of the host continent, but also reflects a drive to bolster Japanese clout as the modern-day Scramble for Africa gathers momentum.
The European Union, China, India, South Korea, and Turkey have similar aid ventures to court African leaders as they look for a slice of the continent’s resources and its burgeoning markets.
But as a relatively early entrant, Tokyo’s role has proved invaluable to Africa.
As well as diplomats and politicians, TICAD will also gather business executives and other participants from Japan and Africa in what Abe hopes will be a boost to two-way trade.
But enthusiasm may be dampened by security concerns over some of Africa’s more lawless areas.
Such danger was driven home in 2013 when a gas plant in Algeria built by a Japanese company was overrun by Islamist gunmen, who killed 40 people, including 10 Japanese.
There is also the growing threat from radical Islamist groupings, such as the Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists as well as the Shabaab group—which is active in Kenya.