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Hello, Africa, India’s calling
Subcontinent companies compete with rival China
Question of the Day
Millions of mobile-phone subscribers in Africa saw the icon on their phone screens change from the Bahrain company Zain to the Indian company Airtel last fall. The change means little to the average customer, but for the continent, it’s another sign that India is moving in.
The Indian government is raising its diplomatic profile in Africa, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Cabinet leading several business delegations in recent years. And Indian companies are striving to keep up with China’s business profile in Africa, taking advantage of historical ties with the continent.
“I think one of the things that India doesn’t want to allow to happen is that it doesn’t want to get behind in this kind of engagement,” said Sanusha Naidu, research director at the Britain-based Fahamu organization, an advocacy group tracking African issues.
“This is the last growth continent in the world. Europe is a done industry. The U.S. is a done industry. Southeast Asia is old,” said Sunil Mittal, founder and chairman of Bharti Airtel. “Our model is not suitable for a matured market. We need growth, and Africa is the right place to grow.”
The International Monetary Fund said in October that Sub-Saharan Africa will register the second-highest growth rates in the world in 2011, behind only Asia. The IMF said Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth rate will be 5 percent in 2010, compared with 2.5 percent in 2009. This year, the IMF projects Africa’s rate to be 5.5 percent.
The relations between India and Africa are centuries old. In the 1960s and 1970s, India helped newly independent African states by training them at Indian universities and other institutions. Indian conglomerates such as the Tata Group have had a presence in Africa for decades.
But India is now changing its relationship with Africa from the political, such as advocating an end to colonialism, to the economic.
In recent years, some Indian companies have expanded their business in Africa, propelling what were once small operations into major players. New companies have also moved in. Among them are:
c In October 2008, the Indian conglomerate Essar Group launched a mobile-phone company in Kenya, in its first investment in Africa. Since then, it has acquired mobile-phone companies in Uganda and the Republic of Congo.
Essar Oil, India’s second-biggest private oil firm, entered an agreement in 2009 to acquire 50 percent of Kenya Petroleum Refineries, which serves three countries in East and Central Africa. Last year, Essar won the bid to acquire a 60 percent share in the state-owned Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Co.
By Matt Kibbe
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