Ideas & Debate

New dynamics emerge between East and West in race for Africa

President Uhuru Kenyatta with British Prime Minister Theresa May
President Uhuru Kenyatta with British Prime Minister Theresa May at State House in Nairobi during a visit to Kenya last week. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Last week President Uhuru Kenyatta went to the US to meet with Donald Trump. This was followed by a trip to Kenya by British Prime Minister Theresa May, and this week President Kenyatta will be attending the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

This flurry of diplomatic activity spotlights the ongoing interest in Africa and Kenya by both the West and East as well as a growing quest within the West for renewed relevance in the continent.

Mr Kenyatta is the second African leader to meet with Trump at the White House, following a visit by Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari earlier in the year.

Following the meeting, investments worth $237 million were committed to wind power and food security, signed with companies in Kenya and facilitated by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a US government agency that helps American businesses invest in emerging markets.

On Thursday, Ms May and Mr Kenyatta held their bilateral meeting in Nairobi, where Kenya was able to secure a deal to continue quota-free exports of horticulture produce to Britain after it leaves the European Union (EU).

They also reached agreements to co-operate on the anti-corruption drive and military training in Kenya.

From her visit to South Africa on Tuesday, Ms May pledged £4 billion in support for African economies, which is expected to be matched by the private sector.

Her focus is on job creation for African youth and she signalled an intent of British government to focus more on long-term economic challenges rather than short-term poverty reduction.

In her speech, the emerging rivalry for Africa within the West itself emerged when May stated that she wanted the UK to overtake the US and become the G7's biggest investor in Africa by 2022.

There are several points to note in the patterns emerging in the renewed push into Africa by the West.

First, there seems to be a difference with US versus UK style in economic deals. What is common, however, is the focus on private sector. The US let private sector take front and centre in the deals announced so far.

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation facilitated the process. The role of the Kenyan government in all this is not clear yet. It seems that the Kenyan private sector, not government, is the focus of US interests.

In the case of the UK, there seems to be a blend of both public and private sector funding, with public engagement leading.

Again, the extent to which deals will be signed directly with the Kenyan government is not clear perhaps indicating that the UK is also more focused on private sector engagement than on large programmes with Nairobi.

The style of the US and UK contrasts starkly with that of China. Sino-African deals are a government-to-government affair with no clear articulation of how African private sector will benefit from the engagements, or even link to the private sector in China.

Interestingly, the focus on the private sector and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by the US and UK complements China’s focus on debt and African governments.

This emerging complementarity can create a powerful blend of financing for the continent going forward.

It will be interesting to see what key deals emerge from FOCAC this week and whether China will begin to shift from being debt-focused, to FDI- focused given concerns with rising Chinese debt in Africa.