Africa Could Reverse Trade Imbalance With Russia
African leaders, export trade organizations and corporate businesses have an extraordinary opportunity to design a well-timed strategy to take advantage of the growing market and to boost trade as a way to reverse considerably trade imbalance that has existed from Soviet times between Russia and Africa, both foreign and local experts have suggested.
In an interview, Maxim Chereshnev, the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Council for the Development of Foreign Trade and International Economic Relations, explains that nowadays there are equally good business perspectives for Africa and that his organization, for instance, is ready to help with trade facilitation and can offer support for African companies, either small or medium enterprises that are looking for new trade opportunities in the Russian Federation.
"It's pleasure to note that Russia and African states have a long story of relations. Import of coffee, cocoa, tea, citrus, sea products and many more from African countries are important for Russia," he stressed assertively, adding that import substitution policy of Russia and the economic diversification are favorable for African countries to promote export/import and to cooperate in investment spheres with Russian companies.
In light of Russia's anti-sanctions – the ban on imports of many types of European agricultural products – diversification of sources of such raw materials has become especially crucial, while import substitution in the country is only fledging. This presents an opportunity for strengthening trade with Asia and Africa.
Chereshnev, at least, is not alone calling for exports from Africa. Quite recently, Olga Kulkova, a research fellow at the Center for Studies of Russian-African Relations, Institute for African Studies in Moscow, noted assertively in her opinion article that "Africa has already started filling the niche, Russian market shelves are enjoying a surge in African vegetables and fruits, most of which used to be re-exported through the EU."
In 2014, African farmers expressed readiness to boost direct exports to Russia, bypassing European mediators. African countries of the continent can make a fortune by selling agricultural products to Russia.
Interestingly, there are only few Africans trading products in Russia's market due to multiple reasons including inadequate knowledge of trade procedures, rules and regulations as well as the changing market conditions. And there are many other obstacles hindering African trade to Russia that have been identified and discussed in many business conferences and seminars, but concrete measures to improve the situation have not been seriously implemented.
As Ibrahim Usman Gafai, Charge d'Affairs at the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in Moscow explained in an interview with Buziness Africa, that the overall trade volume between Africa and Russia has been extremely low and highly skewed in favor of Russia.
Gafai pointed out the key challenge from both sides, Africa and Russia, has been dearth of information on doing business and the market environment, and thus has over the years created a condition of uncertainty, misgivings and negative perceptions among prospective traders and investors.
He, however, called for the need to create a mechanism for the dissemination of vital business and trade information that will enhance business interaction among African exporters and Russian importers. In addition, African leaders have to cultivate business interest in organizing trade platforms and business mission to showcase their potentialities in the Russian Federation.
Comparatively, African exports to the United States, European Union and even to India and China has been growing due to trade preferences, lower custom tariffs and other trade incentives that were made available to African exporters by these big-time players, for instance the U.S. offers incentives through the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA).
According to Rex Essenowo, chairman of the Russian Chapter of Nigerian Diaspora Organization in Europe (NIDOE), "African exporters have keen interests in the Russian market but face many challenges in getting their goods delivered on time to consumers in Russia. They know that the market potential is vast in both ways and further understand that Asian countries have comparative advantage trading with Russia, in terms of distance, transportation of goods and other infrastructure including logistics and warehousing."
In addition, he pointed out assertively that one key advantage is regional trade alliances have helped their member states over the years in providing adequate information about the market rules and custom regulations of exporting products of all kinds to Russia.
“In order to boost Russia-African trade, there should be policy interventions, initiate trade platforms for both Russians and Africans to participate in practical discussions on how to make trade policies more effective and to offer import and export credit support for corporate traders to achieve appreciable results,” Essenowo told me further in his interview discussion.
“If we look at the trade volume between China and Africa, both regions have done so much for more than the past 10 years despite all the skepticism and criticism, but can't African countries raise their trade volume dramatically in order to cut down the trade imbalance given the necessary trade incentives and lower custom duties by Russia?” the chairman of NIDOE asked rhetorically.
As for ways on how to reverse the huge trade imbalance that exists between Africa and Russia, Dr Shaabani Nzori, a Moscow based independent African expert on Russia-African issues, doesn't see much that could be done at the moment for the following simple reasons:
First, there is no much that Africa can propose to Russia that Russia lacks in its own country, that is raw materials in the form of gas, oil, minerals, and other products such as agricultural produce that Russia can easily and cheaply get from other regions like Latin America and/or Asia.
Secondly, the lack of developed infrastructure, manufacturing, strict quality control and packaging in Africa also add to the odds of Africa's failure to export its products to Russia.
As for quality control and packaging, this is a huge problem with Russians as they seem to be too strict and particular on this subject, thereby among others, their reluctance to offer trade preferences to African goods, as they consider African products as being of poor or questionable quality, Dr Nzori explains.
Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated several times in his speech to African diplomats that Russia was prepared to consider new initiatives aimed at improving trade between the two regions.
In May 2014, Lavrov wrote in his own article:"we attach special significance to deepening trade and investment cooperation with the African States. Russia provides African countries with extensive preferences in trade."
Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry has posted an official report on its website that "traditional products from least developed countries (including Africa) would be exempted from import tariffs. The legislation stipulates that the traditional goods are eligible for preferential customs and tariffs treatment."
As far back as 2008, the African Development Bank (AfDB) said in a report that the importance of Russia as a trading partner to African countries is quite minimal when compared to other developed countries and emerging markets such as the European Union, the United States, China, India, and Brazil. Bilateral trade between Russia and Africa reached its peak of US$ 7.3 billion in 2008.
That is understandable. However, Georgi Petrov, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation said at the executive board meeting of the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African Countries (AfroCom) held in April 2015, that Russia's trade with Africa, south of the Sahara, was only US$3.2 billion. The fact still remains that African trade has been minimal in the Russian Federation. And unbelievably, African trade figures with Russia are very hard to find from both African and Russian sources.
For trade relations between Russia and Africa to improve appreciably, Professor Dmitri Bondarenko, deputy director of the Institute for African Studies, also confirmed to Buziness Africa that "Russia gives some trade preferences to African countries – for example, tax exceptions or reduction among other measures. This can become an effective political step to strengthen trade relations with African countries."
According to the views of Jimmy Saruchera, a director at Schmooze Frontier Markets, an investment fund that works to support small-and-medium sized businesses in new emerging markets, both Russia and Africa need work on a good trade policy, stable and transparent institutions that are fundamental ingredients, then tools such as credits and export guarantees can be more effective in boosting trade to both regions.
Experts have repeatedly called for state support and for radical corporate trade initiatives that can systematically bolster private African entrepreneurs’ efforts not only to raise their economic presence but also to facilitate in making strong inroads into the Russian market.
Russia is a member of the newly created Eurasian Economic Union (which constitutes a huge market and allows free movement of goods among member countries) and the other members include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The Eurasian Economic Union is an economic union of states located primarily in northern Eurasia.
*Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs.