Singapore–Africa: Changing perceptions

Singapore's engagement in Africa has been increasing over the last eight years. What does the future hold in future?


Every Friday for the past couple of years I have received a newsletter from the Centre for African Studies (CAS), based at the world-renowned Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

The newsletter, and its associated website, is always full of little gems of information about the latest important issues happening in Africa; and each item carries a short comment by the editor (who is also the director of the Centre), Johan Burger. During my sabbatical away from IC Publications as well as during my travels, this newsletter has kept me fully informed about crucial issues in the continent.

The website, which is replete with very well researched, feature-length articles, has also been invaluable. Both New African and African Business magazines have republished some of these features in order to share the information with our wider African readership.

I feel a certain paternal pride in the success of the Centre for African Studies as it was conceived during the inaugural Africa Singapore Business Forum (ASBF) in 2010. The Forum is now hosted every two years by International Enterprise Singapore.

I was invited to attend this first forum – which has since grown into a major international event – and made some very good friendships that have lasted to this day. We covered the event extensively in African Business and continue to act as the main communication link between Singapore and Africa.

It was a bridge-building effort that has yielded a surprisingly rich harvest and we at IC are justifiably proud of our own small part in this evolution. But it was a very different kettle of fish only some eight years ago.

Interest in Africa had been virtually nil and while the extraordinary success of Singapore was regularly trotted out as an example of what developing countries can achieve, trade and diplomatic relations were very basic. While some Singapore-based companies such as Tolaram, Wilmar and Olam had strong business connections to Africa, for the majority of the country’s entrepreneurs, Africa, as one of them told me in so many words, could well have been on another planet.

But a small core of entrepreneurs and government officials in the ministry of trade were becoming worried that their country was sleepwalking its way past the potential opportunities that Africa presented. The driving force behind this move to connect more directly with Africa was undoubtedly Shabbir Hassanbhai – the chairman of the Africa Group at the powerful Singapore Business Federation (SBF).

He was and remains Singapore’s Non-Resident Ambassador to Nigeria. The burly, jovial businessman, who visited Nigeria frequently, and some of the executives dealing with Africa, felt that both entities had a great deal to offer to each other in many respects, if only the distance, both metaphorical as well as real, could be shortened.

The first Africa Singapore Business Forum was just such an effort to shorten the distance and bridge the enormous communication and knowledge gap that existed between the two.

“When I was appointed High Commissioner to Nigeria in 2007, the understanding of Africa was negative and it ranked low amongst Singapore policy makers and economic agencies,” recalls Hassanbhai.

“In fact Africa was being neglected. This was at odds with views elsewhere recognising the winds of change sweeping Africa and the hope arising from the commodities boom, leading to a new, more positive narrative for Africa,” he says.

“To capture this positive trend in Africa,” Hassanbhai continues, “I conceived  four initiatives: (a) set up a vertical at Singapore Business Federation – a platform to create awareness of and organise business missions to Africa; and involve Singapore companies who had substantial operations in Africa to champion the positive side of doing business in Africa; (b) inaugurate an African forum in Singapore and buy-ins from the government agencies for this game-changing event; (c) create a business think-tank that would be the regional centre in South Asia and bring government, academia and business sections together for the development of greater understanding and co-operation with the continent; (d) set up a Singapore-Africa Fund to partner with Singapore companies to go to Africa.”

With typical energy and single-minded determination, all but the last item on the agenda (the Singapore-Africa Fund) have been realised. The Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong is scheduled to make an official visit to East Africa in October 2017.

Centre for African Studies

But just as important as the forums and foreign visits, was the development of the think-tank and the dissemination of information about Africa. “The feeling amongst Singaporean businesses active in Africa, was that there was not enough knowledge about Africa available in Singapore,” says CAS director Johan Burger.

“Shabbir Hassanbhai, was the main driver to get the centre up and running. He had the support of the SBF executives and his hard work led to five companies, Indorama, Olam, PIL, Tolaram and Wilmar each donating S$1m million to an endowment fund, which was matched by the ministry of education of Singapore.”

The purpose of the CAS, says Burger, is three-fold: to disseminate knowledge of Africa amongst Singaporean as well as ASEAN companies through articles, research reports and talks, symposiums and conferences; to develop the capacity for doing business in Africa by presenting workshops and programmes; and to develop relationships between business executives in Singapore and Africa.

“As such, it has a business focus,” says Burger. “It is one of a very few, if not the only centre, to have a business approach to its research. The aim is not just to get Singapore and ASEAN companies into Africa, but also to help and support African businesses to get involved in Singapore and the region.”

At its core, the centre has a very small full-time staff. In addition to the director, Johan Burger, there are two full-time researchers – Dr Adefolake Adeyeye and Octavio Veras – but their work is supplemented by several adjunct researchers, locally as well as in Africa – in Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa.

The CAS has already had a remarkable galvanising impact. The constant visibility of African issues and their interpretation, allied to the workshops, the lectures, the ‘African Angle’ breakfasts, the visitor exchanges and the depth of research and data on tap has indeed almost eliminated the distance that existed before and Africa is no longer a scary, forbidding place for Singapore’s entrepreneurs.

To get the youth of Singapore exposed to Africa, CAS has started an annual competition, the Africa Challenge, for undergraduates. “They have to research an opportunity to launch a start-up in Africa,” says Burger. “The first prize is a week-long all-expenses-paid trip to an African country for the winning team. The 2016 winning team has just returned from their trip to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.”

As Africa adapts to a rapidly changing global business environment, the Singapore-Africa connection is assuming a much greater significance. It is remarkable that through the work of a few dedicated and clear-minded individuals, such a major revolution in perceptions has been achieved in such a short time.

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