Unlike Ukraine’s foreign policy towards Europe and North America, which Kiev built from scratch after independence, its cooperation with Africa rests largely on foundations dating back to Soviet times. Since the early 1960s, Moscow, in competition with the United States, has sought to forge a global anti-American network with a particular focus on Africa. There they listened favorably to the mantra about the decisive role of the USSR in the decolonization of the continent and readily took the credit for tanks, tractors and food. In addition, tens of thousands of citizens of young African nations studied in the Soviet Union.
By order of Moscow, Ukraine sent cereals, sugar, vegetable oils, metals and heavy industry products to the continent, and also trained young people from Morocco, Nigeria, Guinea, Mali, Uganda and Angola in medicine, engineering and military skills. Thousands of Ukrainian irrigators, metallurgists and military advisers worked in “pro-Soviet” African client countries.
There is no stability in stagnation
At present, the picture has not changed much. Students from these and many other African countries willingly study in Kharkiv, Odessa, Lviv, Vinnytsia and Kiev in the faculties of technology and medicine. While it’s not free, it’s significantly cheaper than in Europe, America, and even Asia. Their governments buy much of their wheat, sugar, rolled metal and chemical fertilizers imported from Ukraine. In meetings of Ukrainians who worked under contract in one or another African country, memories are mostly shared by people aged 70 and over. They try to maintain contacts with African graduates of Ukrainian universities, such as businessmen, generals and important ministers.
At first glance, the picture is rosy. Ukrainian exports to Africa continue to grow, rising from $ 210 million in 1996 to $ 1.75 billion in 2005, and to over $ 4 billion in 2020. Imports, to the delight of the treasury, have not kept pace: $ 141 million in 1996, $ 426 million in 2005 and $ 810 million in 2020. In 2011, Ukraine had 56,000 foreign students; ten years later, they are already 76,000, with Moroccan (8,800), Nigerian and Egyptian nationals in the top ten.
Thousands of Antonov planes, built in Ukraine, make their last flights before being replaced by machines made in Canada, Brazil and Sweden.
However, it is precisely the stability that is the problem, and in fact shows a stagnation of Ukrainian-African ties. The share of mechanical engineering, devices and mechanisms in exports is declining and steel products are overtaken by Indian and Chinese exporters. Thousands of Antonov planes, built in Ukraine, make their last flights before being replaced by machines made in Canada, Brazil and Sweden. Military-technical cooperation is also becoming more difficult. And then, little by little, students will also disappear: why should they study in a country that imports the latest technology from abroad?
A fierce rivalry
While Ukrainian trade with Africa appears to be “increasing”, it is in fact decreasing. Many competitors are advancing at a much faster pace. The threshold of 4 billion dollars in exports was crossed by the second largest player on the continent, China, in 2002 (Ukraine was then approaching one billion). Nowadays, China exports around $ 120 billion worth of goods to the mainland, mainly electronics, household appliances, clothing, footwear and building materials. And he mainly exports minerals for the production of high-tech products in his country.
The European Union has similar results: $ 150 billion worth of high-tech goods goes to Africa, followed by primary products, vegetables, fruits and flowers.
Can poor and unprecedented Ukraine compete with them? In fact, he can – if he plays his cards right.
Would African countries not buy Ukrainian dairy products, poultry, flour, canned or frozen meat products, if they were bought by the European Union, the Gulf States or India? Why is the maintenance and modernization of Ukrainian planes largely in the hands of Cypriot or Emirati companies? If Sudanese or Egyptians, who value their Ukrainian medical education, cannot afford to come to Kharkiv or Lviv, wouldn’t it be easier for them to open branches of their Ukrainian universities where their students live, as many British and American universities do?
These questions, as is often the case in Ukraine, remain unanswered. To repair the old founding links with the continent, or better yet, to completely overhaul them, it takes investment, a strategy and the implementation of a global project. Many enthusiasts of Ukrainian-African cooperation claim that the difficulties on the road to success are exaggerated.
A new Ukrainian-African initiative
In Ukraine, an import-export agency and a corresponding insurance body have been officially set up and are still “operational”. Our competitors are using them successfully to enter African markets. Manufacturers, not middlemen, could deal with household equipment, and alongside planes there are heavy vehicles and weaponry. The Ukrainian State Center for International Education must change its role from registrar to promoter and authorized representative of the national higher education institution.
Only by creating a national “Africa team” does Ukraine have a chance to both maintain and increase its presence in Africa. Dozens of its small and medium-sized businesses are struggling to penetrate local markets – in Tanzania, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon and Tunisia. Some with yogurt, others with chicken, others with building mixes. They are ready to cooperate with the state, but they need support.
Ukrainian businesses also expect more from national diplomacy. There are only six Ukrainian embassies in sub-Saharan Africa, half of those, for example, in Poland or Romania. An increased sub-Saharan diplomatic presence would help correct a trade imbalance, with three quarters of exports going to North Africa (Arabic speaking), although 85 percent of the continent’s population live further south.
In 30 years of independence, there has not been a single visit by a Ukrainian president to sub-Saharan Africa.
Recent economic studies of African markets should also provide an important, if not decisive, argument for governments and businesses. They happen to be the second fastest growing markets in the world, up to 3.8% per year. The population is growing rapidly, having passed 1.2 billion people. The middle class is growing at a similar rate. An exporter who has found his customer today can be sure that the demand for his product will increase tomorrow.
If Kiev decides to form such a ‘Team Africa’ armed with a sensible development strategy, it would be wise to start with an official statement. The 54 independent African states, and in particular the 49 sub-Saharan states, like to welcome leaders from Europe, America and Asia. They come willingly because they know the value of personal contacts at the highest level to promote the interests of their state.
In 30 years of independence, there has not been a single visit by a Ukrainian president to sub-Saharan Africa, and only one of their presidents has visited Ukraine. By comparison, the Turkish president has been there more than 20 times; the heads of state of France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Romania and Italy have all made dozens of visits.
Of course, every visit by a Ukrainian president is long-prepared and expensive. But if Team Africa is formed and functions well, the trips will more than pay off. The foundation, created by Ukrainians and their products decades ago, is loved by Africans. It is high time they modernized it.