Erdogan pledges to double bilateral trade at Turkey-Africa business forum

The Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum held in Istanbul from 21-22 October, aims to provide a platform for Turkish businesses to gain a foothold on the continent.


Image : TWITTER / @tanyeri_c

Turkey aims to double its bilateral trade volume with Africa from $25bn to $50bn, said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Turkey-Africa Economic and Business Forum on Friday 22 October.

The Forum, held in Istanbul from 21-22 October, was attended by some 3,000 businessmen and women from Turkey and across Africa, 30 African ministers and representatives of regional organisations.

Organised by Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK) in cooperation with the Trade Ministry and the African Union Commission (AUC), the Forum took place under the slogan “Deepening Turkey-Africa Partnership: Trade, Investment, Technology and Logistics.”

Speaking on the first day of the Forum, Turkey’s trade minister, Mehmet Muş, recalled that the country’s trade volume with Africa had risen to its present $25bn level from just $5.4bn in 2003. He said that Turkey’s aim in the region was to establish relations based on mutual respect and a win-win strategy.

The first day saw Turkish and African ministers of trade, investment, technology and logistics hold closed door meetings on deepening the Turkey-Africa partnership.

The agenda for day one also scheduled bilateral meetings with business leaders and ministers, as well as panel discussions on emerging opportunities in agriculture, healthcare and the new regional free-trade zone – the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

The second day saw hosted sessions promoting innovation, Turkish-African banking cooperation, trade finance and women’s leadership.

“Raising the Turkish-African trade volume to $50bn must be our main goal,” the chairman of DEIK, Nail Olpak, said in his address on the second day of the Forum. “Signing free trade agreements, agreements to reciprocally strengthen and protect investments, besides cooperation and knowledge-sharing in the fields of industrialisation, agriculture, construction, textiles and health, are our priorities.”

Erdogan’s Africa tour

Ahead of the Forum, Erdogan undertook a tour of three African countries in four days, meeting leaders and investors in Angola, Nigeria and Togo.

During his visit to Angola, the Turkish president said there were significant bilateral opportunities in the energy and defence sectors, with seven deals signed so far between the two countries. He also attempted to differentiate Turkey’s offering to Africa from the West.

“There are still those who cannot accept the independence, freedom and equality gains of the African peoples. We have been witnessing the recurrence of this indigestion recently,” he said in a speech to the country’s parliament.

“As Turkey, we reject Western-centred Orientalist approaches to the African continent. We embrace the peoples of the African continent without discrimination.”

The second country on his tour was Togo, where Turkey recently opened its 43rd embassy in Africa (see below). Erdogan was greeted by President Faure Gnassingbé, who hosted a working dinner at which they were joined by President Roch Kaboré of Burkina Faso and President George Weah of Liberia.

His final stop was Nigeria, where he signed eight bilateral agreements with President Muhammadu Buhari. Nigeria is already Turkey’s biggest trade partner in sub-Saharan Africa, but the Nigerian president expressed the wish that the volume of trade would soon increase from $2bn to $5bn.

Battle for hearts and minds

Since 2009, Ankara has engaged with African countries, big and small, at feverish speed, with Erdogan’s overriding ambition on the continent driven by trade and investment, says Tim Ash, an emerging markets economist at BlueBay Asset Management.

“For quite a long time Turkey has been very Africa focused. Under Erdogan, Turkey embassies have expanded massively globally as part of their effort to boost trade and investment,” Ash says.

That building spree has taken the number of Turkish embassies in Africa from a dozen in 2009 to 43 today. This year, it will open its 44th, in Guinea-Bissau.

The number of Turkish embassies in Africa has increased from 12 in 2003 (countries shaded dark red on map) to 43 in 2021.

Erdogan’s foreign policy is also moulded by efforts to counter the growing influence of rival Islamic powers in Africa such as the UAE and Egypt.

With strong historical trading links, the UAE has become an increasingly vital partner for the continent, and its second-largest investing country, second only to China, according to the Financial Times’ fDI Intelligence.

Ankara’s allegiance with Qatar has pitted Turkey against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE in a “battle for hearts and minds” on the continent, Ash says.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE are fiercely opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and its associated brand of political Islam, Ash says. Doha and Ankara have provided support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and backed rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

This has manifested itself in Turkey’s sweeping investments in education projects on the continent, building 17 schools in Nigeria alone.

“Turkey’s been a big investor in education. Expanding Turkish cultural-religious influence as a conduit to boosting Turkish trade,” Ash says.

Africa also represents a huge success story for Erdogan as Turkey’s tourist economy weathers a battering from Covid-19, Ash says.

“Erdogan has massive problems at home, the economy’s not doing well and and Africa has been one of that has been relatively successful for him in terms of business and trade. So he probably wants some nice photo shoots of him shaking hands and doing stuff in Africa.

As Turkey’s relations with Europe unravel, Ankara has been keen to diversify its trade away from Europe. Two-thirds of Turkey’s trade investment financing comes from Europe, but amid political tensions Erdogan has tried to kindle trade ties elsewhere, starting with the Middle East. Souring relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, and a deteriorating regional security situation refocussed the president’s sights on the continent.

“Africa has been a relatively low hanging fruit, with less geopolitical problems. So Africa is part of this diversification ploy,” Ash adds.

“Africa has been very beneficial for Turkish companies, manufactured products, food, its been a big market, they’ve also been a conduit of transit trade and travellers from Africa.”

Today, Turkish fingerprints are all over Africa, from the Kigali Arena in Rwanda, east Africa’s biggest stadium, built by a Turkish construction firm, to an Olympic swimming pool in Senegal, a colossal mosque in Djibouti and Turkish military hardware on Libya’s battlefields. But while most African countries have welcomed the new partnership, experts wonder about the long-term ambitions behind Erdogan’s Africa strategy. 

Additional reporting by Charlie Mitchell.

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