Ukraine launches African charm offensive as Zelensky lays ground for first visit

Ukraine promises more grain and investment for Africa as well as a historic first visit to the continent by President Volodomyr Zelensky, reports Chris Bishop in Kyiv.


Image : Chris Bishop

Amid a debilitating war and dwindling resources, Ukraine’s embattled government is embarking on an ambitious African charm offensive. It promises more grain and investment for Africa, the opening of new embassies on the continent, and a historic first visit to Africa by President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Ukraine is mired in a debilitating stalemate in the Russian invasion that has claimed the lives of at least 31,000 of its soldiers and more than 10,000 civilians. 

Reports from the front line in the east say that the Russians are creeping forward against a weary Ukraine army running short of shells and men.

War haunts the huge colonnaded office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv; on the square outside, a statue dressed in a flak jacket towers over rusty, beaten, Russian tanks. Inside the building, where this new Africa policy was drawn up, sandbags and soldiers crowd the reception.

Maksym Subkh, Ukraine’s special representative to Africa and the Middle East, says that Ukraine is promising more grain and investment for the continent plus a string of new embassies as it seeks more support in its fight against the Russian invasion. 

He says his country has already sent seven shiploads of grain to a number of African nations. It now plans to expand grain deliveries to Mozambique, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mauritania. 

This month, a bakery in Nairobi became a “Grain from Ukraine” pop-up in a bid to showcase a “humanitarian initiative that supports lives and food supplies across Africa”. The Grain From Ukraine initiative was founded by President Zelensky, in partnership with the World Food Programme, to bypass the barriers put on the global food system by Russia’s invasion and blockade.

Subkh says Ukraine will send grain to the needy in Africa regardless of politics: “We will never use our grain as a weapon; on the contrary, Russia does.”

According to Subkh, at a time when Ukraine is struggling to pay for its costly war against Russia, it plans to open at least nine new embassies in the next year including outposts in Rwanda; Mozambique; Botswana; the DRC; Cote D’Ivoire; Ghana; Mauritania; Tanzania and Sudan.

Zelensky travel plans

Subkh also says he has invited South Africa to take part in Ukraine’s peace formula summit in Switzerland later this month.

The Ukrainians say they’ve also asked President Cyril Ramaphosa about the possibility of holding a Ukraine-Africa conference in South Africa.

“We have also asked South Africa about a visit by President Zelenksy and we are waiting for a date. It will be the first visit of President Zelensky to Africa,” says Subkh.

Ukraine is also promising to invest in agriculture in Africa. Subkh says his country can invest in setting up farm machinery, factories, fertiliser manufacturers and agricultural science projects through joint ventures. 

Subkh also invited South African construction companies to travel to Ukraine to get involved with the rebuilding of his war-torn country. 

When questioned about the fact that many of South Africa’s leaders were trained in Moscow and hold sympathies with Russia dating back to the movement against apartheid, Subkh replied: ”Many African heroes of liberation, in the days of the USSR, were trained right here in Ukraine.”

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Chris Bishop

Chris Bishop is founding editor of Billionaire Tomorrow; founding editor of Forbes Africa; former head of programming CNBC Africa.