These days Indian Institute of Foreign Trade(IIFT) , the business school from which I have recently graduated, is all abuzz about a new assignment from the Prime Ministers Office. IIFT has been tasked with setting up a new school of foreign trade in Africa to train professionals in international business management. As India and Africa inaugurate the second Indo-African summit , this initiative is a very good example of the way in which India and Africa can partner to achieve mutual prosperity and security in the 21st century.

It is now almost universally agreed that Africa would be a very important economic region in the 21st century.  It will not only be a supplier of crucial raw materials , but would also be a big and flourishing market in itself. Its combined GDP is now more than that of India and is expected to grow fast . The worlds leading economic powers are vying with each other to secure crucial supplies as well as to corner a slice of the consumer market. Mirroring the changing world geopolitical scenario, the strategic and economic influence of India and China is increasing in Africa at the expense of Western nations. At the same time the competition between India and China is increasing. Although , not a neo-colonial scramble for Africa , this rivalry is real and is  bound to intensify in the coming decades. India needs to stand up and fight for its interests in Africa , albeit with different tools.

Most of the Chinese engagement in Africa usually consists of  heavy investment  in physical infrastructure with a view of securing access to natural resources. A majority of these deals are financed by the Chinese Export Import Bank and are usually executed by Chinese contractors. The projects are executed by Chinese managers using Chinese instruments and Chinese labor. Some labor gangs are even reported to bring their own prostitutes from China. Although ensuring efficiency, this model increasingly alienates the Chinese businesses from the local population and have little trickle down effect . To a population which is very sensitive about colonial exploitation, this high handedness is slowly adding to public resentment which might one day explode.

India cannot and should  not emulate this. India must carefully position itself as a partner to Africa in growth. Our focus should not be on investing in physical infrastructure as much as on the social infrastructure.Rather than being state sponsored, Indian engagement with Africa should be led by private sector. Robust people to people ties should be built and encouraged.  Indian businesses should be encouraged to invest into those sectors which are most crucial to African growth, such as water, agriculture productivity, medicine , education. Indian businesses should also provide as much employment as possible to the local people, even if that means investing heavily into training employees.

And all this should be done not because it is nice to say and do , but because it makes ample business sense. This is the 21st century , and todays Africa will never accept any colonial master. As its people become more educated , and more aware , they are more likely to share their wealth with a friend than an oppressor. We need to extend them a firm hand of friendship with a clear heart and conscience.

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