The Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum, held in Sochi (in the Russian Federation) from 23 to 24 October 2019, became an important milestone on the path of the development of the Russia-Africa relationship. All the leaders of African nations (that are recognized by the United Nations) as well as representatives of Africa’s international organizations received invitations to this event. It was co-chaired by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el‑Sisi. Agreements on cooperation in foreign policy, security and various economic spheres were reached at the summit.
Russia is determined to return to Africa in full measure and re-establish ties with the region that had existed since the Soviet Union era. However, too much time has passed since those days, and the Russian Federation has a long journey ahead of it if it wishes to restore its cooperation with Africa to Soviet levels and become one of the continent’s main partners. The memory of friendly ties that existed between the USSR and Africa, and of the help extended by the Soviet Union to all African nations (who wished to become independent) in their battle against colonialism and nation building efforts is still alive today and will enable the Russian Federation to find a common language with its African partners. However, all the practical aspects of cooperation will need to be worked on from scratch.
Typically, the establishment of ties between nations begins with trade. Over the past decades, there has been a certain volume of trade between the Russian Federation and African nations. However, this trade turnover remained relatively low. During the last decade, it began to grow gradually. From 2010 to 2018, the Russia-Africa trade turnover rose more than two-fold: from US$ 9.9 billion to US$ 20.4 billion. What is noteworthy is that the pace of this growth increased substantially in recent years, starting in 2016, with the biggest trade volumes reached in 2018 (there are no results as yet for 2019). From 2016 to 2018, Egypt, Morocco and Algiers remained Russia’s key partners. At the same time, the trade turnover between the Russian Federation and nations to the south of the Sahara Desert was only US$ 4 billion.
The Russian Federation mainly supplies its African partners with food and agricultural raw materials (such as wheat and maslin); land transport vehicles; aerial vehicles and ships; equipment and machines; oil and refined petroleum goods, and metals and products made of metal.
In turn, Russia imports fruit, vegetables, cocoa, tea, tobacco raw materials, clothes, shoes and natural resources from Africa.
According to representatives of Russia’s government and businesses, the Russia-Africa Summit became a pivotal event for the Russian Federation and its African partners. The Russian leadership showed its nation’s business circles that its constructive African initiatives were able to receive support at the highest levels. African businessmen, in turn, saw that the Russian market was open to them. In order to discuss the future of the cooperation in more details, representatives of Russian and African businesses met at the Russia-Africa Economic Forum, held in Sochi during the same time as the Summit.
Unfortunately, just as several decades ago, Africa’s key problem remains lack of food. The population on the continent keeps growing rapidly but the extent of agricultural development cannot ensure that there is food for everyone. Hence, quite naturally, the substantial growth in trade between Africa and Russia ought to be accounted for by increased supplies of food and agricultural products.
Participants of the Russia-Africa Economic Forum included Sergey Levin, the Russian Federation’s Deputy Minister for Agriculture. He said that the plan was for Russia’s agribusiness to double its exports of agricultural products to Africa with the aim of reaching volumes worth more than US$ 5 billion.
Krasnodar Krai and Rostov Oblast are to play a key role in this initiative. Since they are located in the south of the Russian Federation, the warm climate they enjoy ensures that they are among the top 3 regions in the nation in terms of agricultural production. Food will be manufactured there and exported to the African continent via their ports.
As mentioned earlier, the nations of North Africa are Russian Federation’s main partners. It is, therefore, important for Russia to increase its exports to other parts of the continent. According to Sergey Levin, the Russian Federation may satisfy the existing needs of African countries and supply them not only with grain (traditionally, a key commodity exported) but also sunflower seed oil, fowl and confectionery. Still, grain remains the main product traded. It is strategically important for preventing hunger, and the quality of Russian grain is top-notch, globally.
Another strategically important product is vegetable oil. It is also a crucial export for the Russian Federation and a point of pride. During the Forum in Sochi, the EFKO Group (one of Russia’s largest producers of vegetable oil) signed an agreement with United Oil (one of the biggest oil and fat businesses in Egypt) on the construction of a joint facility in Egypt. The factory will be built near Cairo. The signatories to the contract expect it to become the largest manufacturer of vegetable oil and edible fat in North Africa. And, in the future, its products will be delivered to all of Egypt’s neighboring African countries as well as to the Middle East and South of Europe.
The construction of such a facility should stimulate Egypt’s agricultural sector since it is more profitable to produce oil from raw materials sourced from nearby regions. Perhaps, this initiative is far more attractive for Egypt and the whole of Africa than simply deliveries of food because it could help the residents of this continent to master the technologies for manufacturing needed products.
There is another similar project to involve local residents in food production and to educate them about this sector. Russian experts are already working on this initiative in Ethiopia. The Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences conducted some research on Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, and its staff are now preparing a scheme for breeding fish commercially in this water body. In the future, the plan is to revive the fish population in all of the nation’s bodies of water, which was almost completely decimated by the locals who engaged in unsustainable fishing practices. The participants of the project expect it to supply enough fish to meet the internal needs of the Ethiopian market and to even produce a surplus that can be exported to neighboring countries by as early as 2021.
It seems that Russia’s renewed involvement in the African content is off to a good start. The Russian Federation could help the nations of Africa rid themselves of their key problem – hunger. Supplying Africa with food and developing its agricultural sector are probably the best options that Russia could offer to the continent. And it is a positive development that the Russian Federation chose to begin its return to Africa in this manner.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”