India, Africa discover each other - with help from diaspora

April 2nd, 2008 - 11:55 am ICT by admin  

By Devirupa Mitra
New Delhi, April 2 (IANS) As India and Africa discover each other anew, they already have a ready channel through which to route their newfound trade ties - successful Indian origin business leaders in the continent. The Africa-India business conclave held in New Delhi last month demonstrated as much, with the official African delegation filled with top Indian origin business people.

Not only was the official booklet of participants from Africa abound with Indian surnames but speakers also trumpeted the presence of a significant Indian minority in their countries.

Uganda Investment Authority executive director Maggie Kigozi in her presentation listed the top business houses in her country led by Indians - the Madhvani Group, Mehta group, Mukwano Group, Dembe Group, Crane Group, IPS Group, Ruparelia Group and Roffings.

She pointed out that while India was now the third largest investor in Uganda, it would be on top if the investments of Indian origin business people - who left Uganda after the Idi Amin purges in the 1960s and settled in different parts of the world - were counted in this category.

Similarly, Zambian High Commissioner to India Keli Walubita was keen to impress that the Indian business community would be “comfortable” in his country.

“We have people from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan settled in Zambia,” he said, adding: “You will not be a stranger there.”

Nearly three million people in Africa are of Indian ancestry, and the top three countries having the largest population of Indians are South Africa, Mauritius and the Reunion islands. They also have sizeable presence in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania in the east and Nigeria in the west.

According to Uganda’s envoy to India Nimisha Madhvani, the achievements of Indian origin business people are “confidence-boosters” for Indian companies looking to invest in Africa.

“It gives the message that if they can do it, so can we,” said Madhvani, who herself comes from a prominent Ugandan industrial family of Indian origin.

Among those who have found their fortune in Africa are Dev Babbar’s family, whose grandfather left Lahore for Africa in 1898. More than a century later, Babbar was here attending the three-day conclave, looking to find a partner to fund his expansion plans for his multi-million dollar industrial empire with headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.

“We (Indians) have developed the commercial zones in several African countries, constructed the Mombasa-Kampala railway… created the sugar estates,” said Babbar, who wore a tiny lapel pin in the form of the Zambian flag.

However, many Indian origin participants felt that the common ethnicity did not make joint projects with Indian companies any easier.

Babbar, now busy building new steel and cereal processing plants with Indian associates, suggested that the Exim Bank of India should directly finance their projects.

“Right now, Exim Bank gives the money to PTA bank, which then lends us the money. If it was direct, then it would be much easier for us,” he said.

The Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank is known as PTA bank, after the acronym Preferential Trade Area, the precursor to the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa).

Chandrakant Meggi, who migrated from Diu to Mozambique in his teens in 1964 - from one newly liberated colony to another that was still under Portuguese rule - also agreed.

He said that in his experience whenever Indian companies tried to form joint ventures, they always asked for a majority stake. “They (Indians) claim that they were bringing the money, whereas it was the loan given by the Exim Bank. I would rather have got the money directly,” added Meggi, who has interests in IT, minerals and agro-processing.

“Most Indian companies are looking only for their profit, they usually don’t care if their partners are doing well in the deal or not. The Chinese are not like this, they look at both sides, so they are looked on favourably by the Africans,” he warned.

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