Japan-Africa Cooperation: World’s Best Kept Secret and Africa’s Game-Changer Pt 1.


What has Africa got to do with Japan? A lot.  Across Africa one cannot miss the sight of Toyota cars roaming the streets of African cities.  Millions of Africans have used Japanese electronics.  A few Africans have studied in Japanese universities: both private ones such as Sophia University, Waseda University and Doshisha University, and public ones such as Tokyo University, Kyoto University and Nagoya University.  And if you ask, average Africans will tell you they have heard about Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  But then follows a paradox.  How come that not much is known about Japan-Africa cooperation? Much talk these days is about how China has invaded Africa with cheap goods and massive infrastructure projects with the much talked about “Road and Belt Initiative.”  The main purpose of this article is to highlight the status of Japan-Africa cooperation with the aim of making a case for more robust Africa’s engagement with Japan as the best option as Africa prepares for a take-off, following the ratification of Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AFCFTA).  This is not to shield Africa from other interested parties, but to set up a strategic intent as a point of departure.  The advantages for this international cooperation policy option will be briefly explored.  Areas of cooperation include: trade, investment, industrialization, education and culture, capacity building, ICT and innovation.  But most importantly, are there key lessons that Africa can learn from Japan, despite the fact that it is hard to compare the two economies?


Image result for 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) to be held in Yokohama, Japan, August 28-30, 2019


 Africa and Japan Compared and Contrasted

This section should probably read: “How not to compare Africa with Japan.”  In one sense comparing Africa and Japan is like comparing an elephant with a rabbit. In terms of area, population and natural resources, Africa is the elephant and Japan is the rabbit, while in terms of GDP and per capital income, industrialization, infrastructure, and ICT, Japan is the elephant and Africa is the rabbit.

Comparing Africa and Japan

In terms of area, while Japan is 364, 485 Sq km, Africa is 30.37 million sq km.  Africa’s population is 1.216 billion (by 2016) while Japan is 126.8 million (by 2017).  GDP: Africa $ 2.33 trillion (in 2018); Japan $ 5.443 trillion (in 2017 estimate).  GPD per capita: Africa $ 1,890 (in 2018); Japan 41,021.  GDP real growth rate: Africa 2.3 % (2018); Japan 1.7 %.  People (ethnic groups): Africa 1250-3000 native linguistic groups; Japanese 98.1 %.  Demography: Africa 0-25 years–about 60 %; Japan 0-25 years–22.34 %

Of course Africa is a continent and Japan is a country, and that is why the comparison is rather misleading. But in the context of regional integration and Africa moving towards a Continental Free Trade Area and finally a political federation, the comparison is still valid.  From the comparisons in the table above, Africa needs to learn from Japan and discern which factors might be preventing a resource-rich continent from being industrious and prosperous.  Some factors are obvious even to the novice in economics and policy.  Failure to urbanize is a major barrier.  Egg and chicken problem—is Africa failing to urbanize because of being economically underdeveloped or it is economically underdeveloped because it has failed to urbanize?


Image result for 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) to be held in Yokohama, Japan, August 28-30, 2019


Overdependence on agriculture without adding value to agricultural products is also clearly a barrier to economic growth.  The many youth who are not employed are another crucial factor in Africa’s underdevelopment paradox.  A vast land that is not capitalized and obviously not put to good commercial farming is yet another factor.  The big African population lacks productive skills and is instead fragmented into ethnic groups that spend a good deal of time fighting over underutilized natural resources such as minerals and land.  While Japan was given huge loans after the Second World war, Africa did not get as much aid after the ravages of slavery and colonialism.  Instead the few loans that were given later gave rise to massive debt burdens throughout the 1980s and 1990s.


Image result for 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) to be held in Yokohama, Japan, August 28-30, 2019


Japan-Africa Cooperation Akin to A Secret Love Affair: Best Kept Secret

The oldest and most powerful multinational brands across Africa are Japanese vehicles such as Toyota, Suzuki, Honda, Mitsubishi, and Yamaha (Motorcycles).  Other famous Japanese brands are: Seiko and Casio (watches), Sony (Radio and computer).  Many other electronic gadgets from Japan such as Toshiba (computers), Fuji (Cameras and films), are household names in Africa, while Toyota Land Cruisers, pick-ups and Prados can be seen cruising on Africa’s dusty roads.  What is in a name? A lot, including large sums of money.  Japan’s major brands that are common in Africa are worth billions of dollars as the table below indicates.


Japan’s top brands and their value

Brand name                     Value in Millions of US Dollars             Rank

Toyota                                      50,291                                                                     1

Nissan                                        11,534                                                                    2

Canon                                       9,788                                                                       4

Sony                                         8,474                                                                        5

MUFG                                      6,714                                                                         6

Panasonic                                  5,983                                                                      7

Uniqlo                                       5,252                                                                      8

Subaru                                       4,001                                                                      9


A small anecdote.  Africa’s economic classes can be illustrated by the following: an old Toyota pick-up carrying sacks of Irish potatoes, cabbages, some chicken along with passages on top of these goods (low class peasants); a double cabin four-wheel drive Toyota Pick-up heading from one of Africa’s capital cities to a rural home for a weekend (middle class); a Toyota Prado with an African Cabinet Minister visiting his rural home (upper class filthy rich).

It’s ironic (or is it not?) that in Japan, while cars are manufactured in all these different grades, they are neither a symbol of social class nor an indication of one’s clean or filthy status, but they are just a necessity. You buy a car because you need it, in the first place, and there are monetary and purchasing systems in place that can allow people of all classes to buy the car they want irrespective of social class or standing. But that’s a story for another day.

Africa and Japan have been engaged in international cooperation since the 1950s.  A lot of Japanese goods have been flooding African markets but few Africans can admit having met a Japanese person, not to mention having visited a Japanese Embassy.  How many Ugandans, for instance, know that the legendary Yuichi Kashiwada (88) of Yamato shirts has spent most of his adult life in Uganda? He was dispatched to the East African nation in 1965 when the first Independent Uganda government proposed the establishment of a joint venture to Japan’s Yamato Shirts and they founded clothing maker Uganda Garment Industry Limited (Ugil) in 1964. He has rubbed soldiers with Presidents from Obote 1 to Museveni. For those of us who went to school between the seventies and the eighties, wearing a white Yamato shirt was a symbol of pride. But little did we know that the man and company behind this brand were Japanese!


Image result for white Yamato shirt in africa

Even after the company had been nationalized and later closed during political turmoil and changes of governments, Kashiwada managed to repurchase it and rename it Phenix. In his older days he has not only focused mainly on making the more appealing organic shirts and T-shirts, but has also set all his efforts on training his Ugandan workers and molding them almost as a father into responsible workers. “What is most important”, he says, “is educating employees”. He tells them to strictly adhere to the work hours and keep things at the factory tidy and in order. He refuses to let those coming even a minute after 8 a.m. to enter the factory and deducts pay for a day’s work from their salary. He said he is going to stay active for the rest of his life.”[ii] This little known hero is still Director at  Phenix Logistics Uganda Limited, and he has touched many local lives. Indeed, what Kashiwada has done over five decades in Uganda is arguably what this young nation’s workforce needs most but misses almost at all levels from the civil service to the peasantry, discipline.


Image result for Yuichi Kashiwada Yamato shirts


It can also be argued that Africa as a whole is one of the main beneficiaries of JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency)’s Volunteer Program. In this program, “Japanese aged between 20 and 69 with both skills and will to work in a developing country will be dispatched for two years by the Government of Japan to the country which requested the volunteer in the area they need, for example education, health, environment, community development, social services, agriculture, science and technology etc. The volunteers become members of the communities they work with and bring new ideas and share their expertise with local communities through collaboration. It is a program not embroiled in grand infrastructural projects, but which leaves lasting marks of bilateral cooperation between the Asian giant and each individual African nation in areas from education to agricultural/rural development.

Why is Japan-Africa Cooperation such a mystery given the fact that Official Development Assistance (ODA) from Japan to Africa has been quite significant? Other development partners in Africa such as China, UK, France, Germany, EU and US are quite visible.  The analogy of Japan-Africa cooperation can be termed as a secret love affair—a lot is going on but not visible to the general public and least talked about.  Japan Africa cooperation can be compared to a secret love affair, where a lot goes on but it is not talked about in public…….

To be continued.

By Vick Ssali and Odomaro Mubangizi

[i] See www.rankingthebrands.com

[ii] See The Japan Times, May 15, 2008 (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2008/05/15/national/shirt-maker-weathers-ugandas-ups-downs/#.XQOSnvZuIjY)

[iii] See https://www.jica.go.jp/kenya/english/activities/volunteer.html

Author: Admin

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