Belarus has begun building economic bridges with Africa to increase its export revenue and diversify its trade relationships. The country of 10 million makes products that a developing continent can use, including mining equipment, agricultural equipment, heavy-duty trucks, road-building and construction equipment, and machine tools. The products are sturdier and cheaper than those made in many developed countries, a lot of customers say.
Some of the products are even headline-grabbers. Last year the Belaz company rolled out the biggest mining dump truck that the world has ever seen — a nine-meter-long beast that can carry a 450-ton payload. In addition to heavy equipment, Belarus produces military hardware, such as helicopters, that can help meet African countries’ defense and
anti-terrorism needs. Belarus also has agricultural technology that the continent could use to grow food more efficiently. And it produces agricultural products such as fertilizer.
Belarus’ ambassador to Russia, Igor Petrishenko, said last year that Belarus and Africa are natural partners. If Africa is to continue improving its citizens’ lives, he said, it will need to expand its industrial infrastructure, build more roads, airports and port facilities, and develop logistics capabilities.
“We make exactly the products” that Africa needs to accomplish those goals, Petrishenko said at a gathering of Belarusian and African government and business leaders in Moscow. “If you look at the structure of Belarus’ economy,” he said, you won’t see “a more promising partner for Africa.”
Belarus wants to increase the number of its trade relationships because two-thirds of its international commerce is with just one country: Russia. That’s just too few eggs in one basket, Belarusian officials say.
Africa’s rapid development offers huge opportunity for a diversification of partnerships. African nations have expressed enthusiasm about Belarus’ efforts to increase trade with them.
“We are developing our agriculture, and Belarus could help us do it,” said Claude Bezos, the Central African Republic’s ambassador to Russia.
Belarus began accelerating its efforts to expand trade with Africa about five years ago. A high-profile step was sending Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei to the continent in 2014. He oversees Belarus’ trade relations as well as its diplomacy. In the past 2.5 decades “we have not paid significant attention to Africa,” Makei said during a visit to South Africa. “When the Soviet Union collapsed, our ties with African states collapsed as well.” That will change, he pledged.
Trade between Belarus and Africa amounted to only $460 million in 2013. Belarus exported $294 million worth of goods to the continent and imported $166 million. That was only 0.6 of a percent of the country’s over-all trade — way too small for a market the size of Africa.
Makei’s trip to South Africa and Nigeria last year led to announcements that Belarus will do a joint venture in South Africa and would like to do three in Nigeria. The two countries are the continent’s biggest economies. The South African venture will assemble tractors. Belarus would like to assemble tractors, trucks and agricultural machinery in Nigeria.
Another step that Belarus has taken to accelerate trade with Africa is opening embassies on the continent. Belarus became an independent nation in 1991, when the Soviet Union
collapsed. For years it had to focus its resources on transitioning from a planned to a market economy. That meant it had to prioritize the opening of embassies, which are expensive propositions. The embassies it opened were either close to home or in the world’s most important capitals, such as Washington.
Its recent decision to open embassies in Africa signals a major commitment to expanding trade with the continent because embassies play an important role in facilitating trade.
Belarus now has four embassies in Africa — in Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia. More are planned.
In welcoming Makei to South Africa in September 2014, the country’s foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, noted that trade between the countries had jumped six-fold from $3.8 million in 2009 to $21.4 million in 2013. The fact that the 2013 figure was still so small showed how much room there is for the partnership to grow, the countries said. The same is true of Belarus’ trade with other African nations.
Belarus’ sale of 800 tractors to South Sudan in the summer of 2014 shows the potential in Africa, Belarusian officials said. Those unfamiliar with the agricultural-equipment industry are surprised when they learn that Minsk Tractor Works has 8 percent of the global market for wheeled tractors. It could increase that share significantly by developing the African market.
Although a small country, Belarus has been a leading exporter of milk, meat and wheat. Agriculture’s share of its gross domestic product has fallen by more than half since Soviet times to about 8 percent today. But that’s still a significant figure, which is why Belarus pays a lot of attention to its farm sector. One of the reasons it’s good at growing crops and livestock is excellent agricultural training — and that training will figure in Belarus’ expanded trade with Africa.
Belarus plans to admit African students to its agricultural universities as early as the 2015-2016 academic year. In a visit to Belarus’ capital of Minsk in 2014, the head of a South African agricultural-trade delegation, Mthimkhulu III, gushed about plans for his country’s students to learn about farming in Belarus, saying it would be a great benefit to his country.
A lot of the work that Belarus and Africa have put into expanding trade in recent years has amounted to laying groundwork that will generate future rewards. Given the enthusiasm the two sides are showing about increasing their commercial ties, it’s a good bet that the groundwork will lead to tangible benefits sooner rather than later.
Marshall Comins and Dmitry Yermolaev are the press and investor relations directors of the Kirishi-2 Oil Refinery, Russia's first "waste oil" refinery, set to launch in 2017. Experts in Eurasia-Africa relations, they are also managing directors of the Africa Investment Agency.
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