Japan’s involvement in Africa’s development – the story so far and future perspectives

アフリカの日本 by Vincenzo Lorusso | ヴィンチェンゾ ロルッソ

Introduction – From ‘ABJ’ to ‘K’LA’

Dr Babagana Mohammed Adam is standing gleefully for a souvenir picture in front of the banner of the successful Annual Conference in Applied Epidemiology held in Abuja in September 2019 (Figure 1, see below). Approximately four thousand km and two hours apart, Dr Patrick Vudriko, lecturer at the local veterinary school in Kampala, Uganda, accomplishes another successful day of training and experiments at the Research Center for Tropical Diseases and Vector Control, that he founded two years ago (Figure 2, 3). What links Dr Adam with his Ugandan counterpart, Dr Vudriko, besides their veterinary profession? The fact that both are operating in presence of significant support by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA). In the former case, sponsoring the Abuja conference, alongside organisations such as the WHO, Unicef, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, etc. In the latter, providing substantial capacity funding to set up Dr Vudriko’s lab. These are just two, tangible examples of Japan’s strong ties to health initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa. Japan’s involvement in Africa’s development is in fact tightly connected to this country’s expertise in the area of life sciences and technology. To understand this better, let us first take a look at the history of Japan’s relationship with Africa and its development.


Japan’s ODA: historical and strategic overview

Japan’s track record and ongoing endavours in international cooperation reflect the country’s ‘soft power’ approach used in foreign affairs and diplomacy, since the defeat of World War II. Japan's soft power derives from its economic, financial, cultural and technological capacity, enabling the country to exert its influence internationally without imposing its views and ideals through the use of the military force (1; 2). Inevitably, because of its nature, such an approach requires time before allowing to reap its benefits (2).

A member of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) since its inception in 1960 (3), Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) started reaching Africa in the late 1980s, more than three decades later than its South-East Asian beneficiaries (4; 5). By 1989, the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ had just become the largest ODA donor among DAC countries providing up to 20% of the entire DAC aid (3), of which 15.3 % was addressed to Africa (5). Japan’s initial footprint in the African continent consisted merely of humanitarian aid devoted particularly to the areas of peace-building and ‘social development’ (i.e. health and education) (4). In those years, the humanitarian scope of Japan’s assistance to Africa was essentially attributable to (i) the country’s willingness (and necessity) to raise its political status in the international community, following World War II, (ii) the fact that the main commercial focus of Japanese companies at that time was represented by growing Asian markets and, importantly, (iii) Japan’s aspiration to join permanently the UN security council (for obvious geopolitical reasons), hopefully through the endorsement of African countries (2). These motivations led Japan to outweigh fellow DAC country members, gaining greater visibility, and hopefully a rebuilt image, in several regions of the world, Africa included.

Back in the 90s, then, Japan laid very robust foundations to support what was expected to be a long-term relationship with Africa. In 1992, indeed, Japan drafted its first ‘ODA Charter’, a comprehensive document on the country’s mid- to long-term assistance policy (4). One of its immediate outcomes was the institution of the first “Tokyo International Conference on Africa’s Development (TICAD)” in 1993, a clear reflection of Japan’s forward-looking vision with regards to Africa. This was the absolute first initiative dedicated to Africa to be ever organised by an Asian country [Japan’s pioneering example was later on followed by Taiwan (‘Africa Taiwan Economic Forum’) in 2002, China (‘Forum on China-Africa Cooperation’) and South Korea (‘Korea-Africa Economic Cooperation’) in 2006, and India (‘India–Africa Forum Summit’), in 2008].

A demonstration of the fact that TICAD was established with a long-term outlook, is also given by the fact that, back in 1993, Japan’s trade with Africa represented only 1.5% of the country’s foreign commerce, half of which occurred with South Africa (1).Throughout the years, the TICAD would have represented a key multilateral diplomatic platform for Japan and its African counterparts. Interestingly, Japan has always organised this event in partnership with the UN, UNDP, the African Union Commission (AUC) and, since 2000, also the World Bank [of which Japan is currently the second shareholder (with 8.32% of capital stock), after the USA (16.57% of capitals)] (6; 7). This clearly denotes Japan’s openness towards major multilateral donors, hence its willingness to commit to deliver a ‘type’ of aid that is consistent and aligned with that of other DAC players and international organisations. Conversely, China (to mention a non-randomly chosen counterexample), has run its Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in total independence, every three years, since 2006 (8).For the first twenty years, TICAD took place every five years, being hosted in Japan, either in Tokyo or in the neighbouring Yokohama. After the 2013 edition, however, not only the frequency of TICAD intensified (from every five to every three years), but it was also decided that the event would be hosted in Japan and Africa, alternately (6). This testifies an enhancement of Japan’s relationship with Africa, as it will be illustrated in the following section.

The years 2010s – from ‘donor’ to ‘partner

Japan’s failure in obtaining the permanent membership in the UN security council in 2006, spurred Tokyo to commit more significantly to the ‘African cause’, adopting a progressively different strategy than in the past, with less aid and more private sector involvement. Indeed, the deepening of the domestic economic crisis (the ‘lost 20 years’) (9), forced the Japanese government to rethink its ODA using aid as a way to engage Japanese companies in emerging markets, not only in Africa, by providing a non-negligible ‘de-risking’ (10). The “Abenomics” politics of newly re-elected (December 2012) Japan’s Prime Minister’ Shinzo Abe, contemplated two pillars that necessarily concerned Africa: (i) the rejuvenation of Japan’s economy, including accessing and expanding unexploited markets and (ii) the pursuit of a ‘muscular’ foreign policy vis-à-vis China (11). Both these strategic axes required Africa’s involvement, considering (i) the limited presence of Japanese companies and traded goods in the continent until then and (ii) the increasing influence exerted by China in Africa, representing a serious geopolitical threat to Japan, also in light of its undiminished willingness to still join permanently the UN Security Council (12). With special regards to the market potential, by then, Africa’s increasing population and steady economic growth [in 2013, Africa was the world's fastest-growing continent with 5.6% of annual growth and a GDP expected to rise by an average of over 6% a year in the following decade (13)], provided enough reassurance to the sale forecasts of the historically conservative Japanese kaisha (companies). Moreover, the Fukushima disaster of 2011, represented a major incentive to Japan to diversify its energy provision, also by securing fuel sources (e.g. gas and coal), that are scantly available domestically and should therefore be sought abroad (12).

After eight long years of lack of prime ministerial visits to the continent, in January 2014, Shinzo Abe took off to Africa, reaching Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique and Ethiopia. The first represented a crucial entry point to francophone West Africa and a strategic partner to China in the region (and this is where Abe gathered the leaders of 10 other West African States for his visit); Mozambique had just discovered gas and coal sites (with Japan being one of the main scouting investors) and Ethiopia was where the plans for a geo-thermal plant, outcome of a collaboration with Japan, were to be announced (14). During this trip, Abe exhorted his African counterparts to choose Japan as their ‘partner’, rather than a ‘donor’, highlighting the benefits that the continent could gain from “the organizational culture of Japanese companies which value human resources, the creative ingenuity bottom-to-top”, to realize “an Africa in which women shine” (4; 11).

In this context, in 2016, TICAD VI was held for the first time in Africa, in Nairobi, “in response to the request from the African side”, as specified on the website of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) (6). In Nairobi, Shinzo Abe announced the investment of $30 billion under public-private partnerships to assist areas such as infrastructure and health care over a 5 year-period (10). As of 2016, Japan ranked tenth for ODA among DAC donors to Africa, with approximately $1.5 billion, more than six time less than what provided by top of the list USA (15). These figures are consistent with Japan’s strategy to move towards a more private sector-led development approach. Consistently, by 2017, Japan invested $9 billion in Africa, the vast majority of which were coming indeed from foreign direct investment (FDI) (16). In 2019, TICAD returned to Japan; this event was a great multilateral success, benefitting from the participation of more than 20 African leaders. In this occasion, more $20 billion were pledged by the Japanese government for the next three years through private investment (6).


Africa as a geopolitical ‘playground’

As aforementioned, China’s growing influence in Africa was a major trigger of Japan’s enhanced involvement in this continent. A key example of this rivalry on the continent is represented by the military presence of both countries in Djibouti: since 2011, with a self-defense force base, in the case of Japan, and since 2017 in the case of China (17). Importantly, Japan’s reaction to China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, with major trade and infrastructure plans for East and North Africa, is its alliance with India in the ‘Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’, aiming to make Africa an essential component of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy, of which Japan advertises proudly the inclusiveness (18).


The uniqueness of Japan’s approach – from form to content

Japan’s “involvement in Africa’s development” (to be intended as a combination of both aid and FDI) stands out among traditional DAC donors for several reasons. These include: (i) Japan’s consistent focus on areas of “Human Security (HS)”[1], in full alignment with the UN sustainable development goals, including the ‘historical’ domains of health, education, agriculture, high-quality infrastructures and the more recent streams of energy and automobile industry (2). In all these sectors, Japan provides development through capacity building and cutting-edge technological breakthroughs. Japan’s ‘soft power’ based approach is also extremely conscious of (ii) “non-material” factors of development, as demonstrated by the adoption of the ‘kazen’ management and working philosophy, developed in the Land of the rising sun in its high-growth period in the 1960s-70s, implemented thus far in 46 African countries to create better working environments in factories and ultimately higher economic growth (2; 19). With special regards to ODA, Japan’s distinctiveness lies in (iii) the “methodology” through which aid is granted. The Japanese ‘aid model’ is indeed based on the Yosei shugi (request) principle. Rather than imposing its views on development on third parties, Tokyo expects its potential beneficiaries to identify their own needs and file in a specific aid request, in the format of a ‘grant-application’ (20). By doing so, over the past 10 years, JICA has built conspicuous capacity in laboratories and universities, in the area of biological and agricultural sciences, across Africa, like in the case of Dr Vudriko’s lab, fully responding to unmet needs on the ground. Another specific feature of Japan’s ODA in Africa is represented by (v) its increasing preference for small loans (as opposed to China), aiming for financial sustainability and expanding private sector-led initiatives (21). For instance, in 2016, 28% of Japan’s ODA to Africa was represented by grants, 15% by technical co-operation and 4% of concessional loans (5).

With regards to the domains of investment and aid, Japan is a major player in the energy (e.g. electricity) sector in Africa: first, among DAC donors (33% of its total ODA for Africa goes to energy, whereas for the USA it is only ~5%) (14). In the future, this will be increasingly done through public-private partnerships, as suggested by the recent investment of Mitsubishi Corporation of ~$50 million in BBOXX Limited, a company that provides clean and affordable energy solutions, to solar panels and battery storage to homes on a pay-as-you-go method (22). Japan’s footprint in Africa has also long been recognised for delivering quality infrastructures (e.g. Mombasa port, Tanzania-Zambia railway) (16). The Japanese government takes pride on the fact of employing mostly local labour force and transferring the technology and know-how to handle it; although recipient countries may often lack the means to afford the quality of Japan’s deliverables (20). Recently, Japanese automobile manufacturers, such as Nissan and Toyota, have started expanding their sale networks and implanted also plants in East (i.e. Kenya) (23), West (i.e. Ghana) Africa (24), in addition to the initial South Africa (25).

Japan’s prominent role in health initiatives in Africa can be, in turn, attributed to Japan’s know-how in tropical medicine, chemistry and high-tech. With special regards to mosquito control for malaria prevention, Japan’s championing contribution is attributable to its historical leadership in chemistry, with corporations such as Sumitomo Chemical and Mitsui Chemicals being at the forefront of delivering innovative insecticides and bed nets for the African continent (26–28). Moreover, Japan’s excellence in health programmes for Africa is also linked to a number of key Japanese pharmaceutical companies, such as Takeda and Eisai, committed to provide new treatments against malaria and the so-called ‘Neglected Tropical Diseases’ (NTDs), under the aegis of the Global Fund and other Bill & Melinda Gates ‘product-development-partnerships’ (29; 30). Not surprisingly then, the topic of health, in terms of (i) fighting NTDs and (ii) attaining sustainable health financing, was at the core of two ‘side’ events organised during the latest edition of TICAD in Yokohama (30) and a large ‘Pre-Event’ in end-July 2019 (31). All these initiatives are now adroitly orchestrated under the umbrella of the Japan-based “Global Health Innovative Technology Fund” an international public-private partnership that mobilises Japanese industry, academia and research institutes to create new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics in collaboration with global partners (32). Nowadays, Japan’s presence in healthcare provision in Africa is also assured by technology companies (e.g. AfricaScan) that are progressively revolutionising the delivery of primary healthcare services where there was hardly any till now (33). On the whole, Japan's approach is effectively summarised by the theme of the latest TICAD VII held in Yokohama: “Advancing African Development through People, Technology and Innovation(35). This motto resonates in JICA’s “Open Innovation Challenge Initiative” for Africa, aiming to make daily businesses more efficient through digital innovation (36).

Educational and training components have always been a major distinctive feature of Japan’s practice in Africa. Perhaps the most flagrant, yet not exclusive, example in this respect is that of the ‘African Business Education (ABE) Initiative’, launched in 2013 after TICAD V, providing over a thousand African youths with opportunities to take Master courses at Japanese universities as well as do internships at Japanese enterprises over a five year-period (37)

[1] The United Nations’ General Assembly resolution 66/290 defines “Human Security” as “an approach to assist Member States in identifying and addressing widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of their people.” It calls for “people-centred, comprehensive, context-specific and prevention-oriented responses that strengthen the protection and empowerment of all people.” (38).


Future Perspectives – Towards Japan’s ‘adulthood’ in Africa

With Africa becoming a key ground where to counterbalance the influence of China, Japan’s approach in the next decade may perhaps lose some of its original ‘softness’, as hinted by the presence of both powers in Djibouti. Although its investment will grow, it is unlikely that Japan will bridge the financial gap with China in Africa. Nonetheless, Japan’s alliance with like-minded players (e.g. India as for the ‘Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’) (38), could make Tokyo more powerful in the region, while including progressively Africa in its 'Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategy.

Japan’s adulthood in Africa will be characterised by an increase of its trading and private sector-led development initiatives, across its key sectors including the automobile, health, technology, infrastructure and education. Leveraging on the quality and durable nature of its HS-oriented investments, Japan will become an increasingly trusted and called for partner for the African nations. Training opportunities, addressed to African students as well as professionals, are expected to increment, both in loco as well as on the Japanese isles, with the help of targeted scholarship programmes.

Moreover, Japan’s increasing presence in Africa may generate further indirect benefits to the latter, by creating a ‘public tender effect’, leading China and other emerging donors to compete with (and aim for) the standards of development provided by the Land of the rising sun. This can prove advantageous for African countries, that may be better placed to choose their partner(s), in the interest of their economies and their people. Just like Dr Adam and Dr Vudriko.

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29. Takeda (2017) News Release June 1, 2017. Accessed on: https://www.takeda.com/newsroom/newsreleases/2017/takeda-announces-its-participation-in-ghit-fund-for-the-second-phase-replenishment/ Accessed on November 14, 2019.

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37. United Nations (2019) https://www.un.org/humansecurity/what-is-human-security/ Accessed on November 14, 2019.


38. Richter Frank-Jurgen (2018) The alternative to Chinese debt for Africa from Japan and India. ‘Growth Corridor’ can offset excessive. dependence on Belt and Road borrowing. Nikkei Asian Review. Opinion. November 23, 2018.

Legends to Figures - From top to bottom: Figure 1 - Dr Babagana Mohammed Adam posing in front of the banner at the 2019 Annual Conference in Applied Epidemiology in Abuja, Nigeria (photo © B. M. Babagana). Figure 2 - Dr Patrick Vudriko at the end of a working day at his Research Center for Tropical Diseases and Vector Control at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda (photo © V. Lorusso). Figure 3 - Dr Patrick Vudriko and his team at the Research Center for Tropical Diseases and Vector Control hosted within the College of Veterinary Medicine, Animal Resources and BioSecurity (CoVAB) at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda (photo © P. Vudriko).









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