Africa has become an important region for India’s foreign policy and economic interests over the past few decades. With over 1.3 billion people, abundant natural resources, and fast economic growth in many countries, Africa represents major opportunities for investment, trade and strategic partnerships for India. At the same time, China’s expanding presence and influence across Africa has been a source of concern for India. Developing stronger political, economic and cultural links with African countries has therefore become a priority for India.
This article provides a comprehensive overview of India’s strategic engagement with countries across Africa. It analyzes India’s key interests and objectives in Africa, which include expanding commercial ties, securing access to natural resources and energy supplies, boosting India’s soft power and status as a global player, and countering China’s growing footprint on the continent. The article examines the history and evolution of India-Africa relations from the post-independence period to current times. It then provides a detailed country-wise analysis of India’s strategic partnerships with major African nations, its development assistance programs, major investment projects, role of Indian diaspora communities, and India’s engagement with African regional organizations. The opportunities and challenges facing India-Africa ties are also discussed.
History of India-Africa Relations
India and Africa have historically enjoyed close linkages dating back centuries. Trade between India and Africa flourished during ancient times. During the colonial era, a large Indian diaspora was established in Eastern and Southern Africa as indentured laborers for European imperial powers. Mahatma Gandhi, who spent over 20 years in South Africa, also helped galvanize India’s early anti-colonial solidarity with Africa.
Upon achieving independence in 1947, India began actively supporting anti-colonial struggles in Africa. India was a prominent voice advocating for African independence and racial equality on global platforms. Under India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, relationships were built with prominent African leaders and India strongly supported liberation movements in Southern Africa. The Bandung Conference of 1955, which launched the Non-Aligned Movement, marked early post-independence cooperation between India and African countries.
During the Cold War, India’s ties with Africa were influenced by its non-aligned foreign policy and close links with the Soviet Union. The Soviet bloc’s support for leftist African liberation movements aligned with India’s anti-imperialist stance. India established close economic and military relations with several socialist African states. At the same time, India also maintained cordial ties with pro-Western nations in Africa.
In the post-Cold War period, India-Africa ties underwent a gradual transformation. Economic liberalization reforms in India opened new avenues for trade and investment with Africa. India also stepped up its development assistance, lines of credit and capacity building programs for African countries. Countering China’s strategic inroads into Africa has emerged as another priority for India since the early 2000s. Indian leaders have actively re-engaged with African partners through high-level bilateral visits and multilateral initiatives in recent years.
India’s Strategic Interests in Africa
India’s revitalized engagement with African countries over the past two decades has been driven by a set of key strategic interests:
Accessing energy resources and minerals: Africa is richly endowed with natural resources that are essential for India’s growing economy. It has 8% of global oil reserves and accounts for about 9% of India’s total crude oil imports. African nations such as Nigeria, Angola, Sudan and South Sudan are major suppliers of oil to India. Africa also has significant reserves of gold, diamonds, iron ore, copper and other minerals which Indian firms are seeking to tap into.
Food security: India has invested in large tracts of fertile farmland in African countries to overcome shortfalls in domestic agricultural production and meet its food security needs. Indian companies have purchased or leased hundreds of thousands of hectares in Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal and Mozambique to grow crops such as lentils, rice and corn for export to India.
Expanding trade and commercial ties: India is seeking to expand trade and commercial engagements with resource-rich economies across Africa as well as accessing African markets for exports. Two-way India-Africa trade has grown from just $967 million in 1990-91 to over $62 billion in 2017-18, with further potential for growth. Major Indian exports include pharmaceuticals, vehicles, petroleum products, and telecom equipment.
Strategic position in the Indian Ocean: Many East African nations are located along critical Indian Ocean trade routes linking Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Establishing security and trade partnerships with these countries allows India to exert greater influence over the strategically vital Indian Ocean region, which India considers its sphere of influence.
Countering China: Curtailing China’s growing political and economic clout across the African continent has become a strategic imperative for India. China has overtaken India as Africa’s largest trading partner, with over $200 billion in annual trade flows. India is seeking to counter some aspects of China’s influence by offering African countries an alternative development model compared to China’s resource-extraction approach that often lacks transparency.
Enhancing status as a global power: India’s engagements in Africa reflect aspirations to be recognized as an emerging global power with influence across regions. By providing development aid, peacekeeping troops and playing a proactive role in forums like India-Africa summits, India seeks to enhance its global stature and leadership credentials.
Soft power projection: India is utilizing instruments of soft power by promoting its democratic values, culture, education, technology, and development experience across Africa. This includes capacity building initiatives through the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program, university scholarships, exchanges, spreading Indian culture, yoga, arts, and cuisine. Enhanced people-to-people ties also help expand India’s diplomatic influence in African countries.
India’s Bilateral Relations with Major African Countries
India has cultivated increasingly close strategic partnerships with a number of key African countries that serve as gateways to advancing India’s economic and political objectives on the continent.
South Africa has emerged as India’s most important strategic partner in Africa. Bilateral relations were upgraded to a strategic partnership in 2011. As the continent’s largest economy with advanced infrastructure and industries, South Africa serves as a crucial trade and investment destination for Indian firms. India is South Africa’s largest trading partner in the Indian Ocean region. $10 billion worth of bilateral trade flows include diamonds and gold, automobiles, pharmaceuticals, textiles and agriculture products. Top Indian companies like Tata Motors, Mahindra, Cipla and Vedanta have invested in South Africa. Both nations are cooperating closely on cybersecurity, combating terror financing and maritime security in the Indian Ocean. They are also members of groupings like BRICS, G20 and IBSA. Moreover, coordinating with South Africa helps India counterbalance China’s presence elsewhere in Africa.
Nigeria is India’s largest trading partner in Africa with over $13 billion in bilateral trade. As Africa’s biggest oil producer, Nigeria accounted for over 22% of India’s crude oil imports in 2017-18. Major Indian firms like Bharti Airtel, Tata Motors, Dangote Group and Bajaj Auto operate in Nigeria. Through a Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (BIPPA) signed in 2007, both countries are seeking to expand trade and investment flows. India has provided concessional lines of credit worth $100 million to Nigeria for projects in power, transport, agriculture and drugs/pharmaceuticals. Cultural and education exchanges are facilitated through ICCR chairs in Nigerian universities.
Ethiopia is a major recipient of Indian foreign direct investment (FDI), which reached over $5 billion since 2000 invested mostly in agriculture and engineering. Indian companies have acquired vast tracts of farmland in Ethiopia to securely overcome shortfalls in India’s food grain output and boost Ethiopia’s export-oriented agriculture. 50% of Ethiopia’s exports presently go to India in the form of products like pulses, oil seeds and spices. Ethiopia also has the largest Indian diaspora population in Africa of about 70,000 concentrated in trade, services and education. A bilateral investment protection treaty and avoidance of double taxation pact was signed in 2016. India is supporting construction of a new Ethiopia-Djibouti railway line to facilitate trade flows.
India and Kenya have enjoyed cordial ties based on shared anti-colonial struggles, and a population of 80,000 Indian-origin people living in Kenya. India is Kenya’s largest trading partner with annual commerce of around $5 billion comprising almost 18% of Kenya’s global trade. Over 65% of Kenya’s exports to India are primary agricultural commodities like coffee, tea, spices and vegetables. Major Indian companies present in Kenya include Tata, Reliance, Essar, Bharti Airtel and Cipla. India is aiding development of Kenya’s IT and financial services sector. Both nations regularly cooperate on combating piracy in the western Indian Ocean. India is also supporting construction of the new standard gauge Mombasa-Nairobi railway.
Energy is the driving factor behind India’s ties with Libya. India used to import 10% of its crude oil needs from Libya before civil war disrupted production in 2011. Over 18,000 Indians were evacuated during the Libyan crisis. Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, and India is seeking to diversify its energy imports portfolio. IOC invested in oil concessions and downstream refining assets in Libya during the Gaddafi regime. Security issues and political instability have stalled India’s recent economic engagement, although diplomatic ties remain cordial. India recognized the UN-backed Government of National Accord as the official government of Libya in 2016. If stability returns, India will seek to resume oil trade and resume its oil investments in Libya which had reached around $15 billion before 2011.
Mozambique has emerged as a strategic anchor for India’s engagement with Southern and Eastern Africa. Bilateral trade exceeds $3 billion driven by India’s import of coal, aluminum, cashews and other commodities, as well as Indian pharmaceutical exports to Mozambique. ONGC Videsh acquired a 20% stake in the Rovuma offshore gas field for $2.5 billion in 2013, while a separate OVL-Oil India consortium took over Videocon’s 10% stake for $2.4 billion in 2016. Once commercial extraction begins, Mozambique’s natural gas output could emerge as an important new addition to India’s energy import basket. Indian companies have also invested nearly $700 million in Mozambique’s agriculture, pharmaceuticals, fisheries, mining and infrastructure sectors. Lines of credit worth $500 million have financed new projects covering agriculture, rural electrification and IT.
Relations with Ghana have expanded considerably as it has transitioned into one of Africa’s most thriving democracies. Ghana is the third largest trading partner for India in Africa, with more than $3 billion in bilateral trade. Top Indian exports include pharmaceuticals, agricultural machinery, electronic components, two wheelers and cosmetics. Indian companies are active in Ghana’s mining industry, financial services, construction sector and telecommunications. The EXIM Bank of India has extended $228 million in lines of credit for Ghana’s rural electrification and sugar industry. India has emerged as a major education partner – over 2000 Ghanaians study in Indian universities. Strategic ties are expected to deepen further with the commencement of a bilateral Space cooperation agreement in 2018.
Development Partnerships in Africa
India has stepped up its development assistance and aid programs across the African continent as a key pillar of its soft power diplomacy.
Lines of Credit: The Indian EXIM Bank and Government of India have together extended concessional lines of credit worth more than $10.4 billion to various African countries for specific infrastructure and developmental projects in recent years. These low interest credit lines have facilitated projects in power generation, water treatment plants, sugar factories, railway infrastructure, food crop cultivation and communications connectivity.
Training and Scholarship Programs: The Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program offers training to thousands of African professionals in a wide array of fields through short term courses in Indian institutions. India offers around 2800 scholarships annually to African students at the undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate levels across various Indian universities.
Peacekeeping: India is one of the largest contributors to UN peacekeeping missions across Africa, with over 7500 personnel deployed in countries like Congo, South Sudan, Liberia, Sudan, Somalia and Mali. Its long experience with conflict resolution helps stabilize troubled African regions.
Capacity building initiatives: India provides focused capacity building assistance to African countries in fields such as healthcare, education, technology, rural development, electoral management, cybersecurity and combating terrorism. Initiatives like the Pan-African e-Network tele-education and tele-medicine networks leverage India’s expertise for African benefit.
Multilateral aid: India contributes actively to economic development funds like the ADB-led Africa Growing Together Fund and the India-Africa Development Fund overseen by the African Development Bank, which has a $600 million corpus.
Humanitarian aid: India has provided substantial humanitarian relief and donations in times of exigency to countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Mozambique in recent years in the form of food aid, medicines and emergency budgetary support.
Major Indian Investments in Africa
Attracted by its rich resources, consumer market potential and incentives, over 150 Indian companies have collectively invested around $54 billion dollars across diverse sectors in Africa. Some major Indian investment activities include:
Oil and Gas – ONGC Videsh, Bharat Petroleum and Oil India are active across oil and gas fields in Nigeria, Mozambique, Egypt, Libya, Sudan and South Sudan.
Mining – Indian mining conglomerates like Vedanta Resources, Coal India and ArcelorMittal have made substantial investments in South Africa, Liberia, Madagascar, Sudan, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Agriculture – Indian companies have acquired hundreds of thousands of hectares for large commercial farming ventures across Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, Mozambique and Madagascar. They are growing crops like rice, sugar, lentils and corn primarily for export to India.
Pharmaceuticals – Indian drug firms like Cipla, Dr. Reddy’s, Aurobindo Pharma and Ranbaxy operate manufacturing facilities or run distribution networks in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and other sub-Saharan African countries.
Automobiles – Tata and Mahindra manufacture and assemble cars, buses, trucks and auto components across assembly plants in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana.
Telecommunications – Bharti Airtel, Idea Cellular and Reliance Communications have become major telecom players across Africa in countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Niger, Burkina Faso, Malawi and Seychelles.
Renewable Energy – Suzlon Energy and Greenko have developed hundreds of Megawatts in solar, wind and hydroelectric power assets across sub-Saharan African countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda.
Infrastructure and Construction – Major Indian infrastructure firms operating in Africa include RITES, IRCON, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd and telecom construction firm Sterlite Technologies.
Role of the Indian Diaspora
The widespread Indian diaspora in Africa, historical links and cultural affinities act as a key connective bridge facilitating India’s expanded engagements in the continent. There are over 3 million Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) settled across Africa, concentrated mostly in South Africa, Mauritius, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Madagascar. They play an important economic role, with PIOs controlling 65% of Mauritius’ GDP for instance. The Indian diaspora community also helps shape positive perceptions about India and assists in forging closer bilateral ties across fields like business, tourism, education and high-skilled services. Remittances from the diaspora also give African economies a boost. Mauritius and South Africa rank among the top ten remittance recipient countries worldwide.
Engaging with African Regional Bodies
In tandem with bilateral initiatives, India also actively coordinates with regional and intergovernmental bodies across the African continent to push its strategic interests and integrate itself within pan-African economic communities. Some examples include:
- African Union (AU): India has partnered closely with the AU on issues like maritime security, UN reformed, counter-terror cooperation, cyber security and combating disease epidemics. India has committed $100 million in grant assistance towards new ethos and priorities of the AU. The Africa-India Framework for Cooperation was signed in 2008.
- NEPAD: India has contributed $200,000 annually since 2002-03 to NEPAD’s capacity building initiative fund aimed at integrating African economies. India partnered with NEPAD on an e-learning and tele-education initiative and promotes cooperation under NEPAD’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP).
- Regional Economic Communities: India has established formal dialogues and engagement with RECs like COMESA, SADC, ECOWAS and EAC to boost trade, investment and development cooperation.
- Afreximbank: India extended $500 million lines of credit to the Afreximbank in 2003 to promote India-Africa trade flows. Another $300 million was committed in 2008.
- Team-9 Initiative: India and the Team-9 grouping of eight West African nations are collaborating closely to deepen ties in fields like cotton and textiles, power generation, railways and education.
Opportunities and Challenges in India-Africa Ties
India’s strategic engagements in Africa hold tremendous promise but also face myriad challenges moving forward:
- Young demographics and rapid urbanization across Africa is creating rising consumer markets for Indian exports and firms.
- Five of the world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa, offering attractive ROIs for Indian investments.
- Unmet infrastructure needs estimated at $130-170 billion annually present huge opportunities in construction, engineering and consultancy services for Indian firms.
- India’s relative proximity, historical ties and developmental experience make it an attractive partner compared to more distant global powers.
- Support from EU, Japan and US for India’s development programs in Africa through triangular cooperation.
- China’s expanding trade volumes and massive investment of over $250 billion in Africa dwarf India’s presence and restricts its geostrategic influence.
- Slow pace of capacity building and project execution by Indian players partly due to corruption and lack of transparency.
- Issues like poor ease of business, security risks, legal uncertainties hamper greater private sector participation.
- Limited air connectivity and people-to-people exchanges compared to true potential.
- Some African policymakers still identify India more as an aid recipient rather than aid donor.
India’s strategic relations with Africa have expanded considerably over the past two decades, transforming the once peripheral ties into an indispensable partnership across economic, political and cultural spheres. Africa in many ways holds the key to fulfilling some of India’s core national interests – energy security, food security, Indian Ocean primacy and greater global influence. While China may have stolen a march over India in engaging Africa, India is still well placed to leverage its historical goodwill, diverse capabilities and developmental experience to its advantage.
Sustaining high-level political engagement, facilitating Indian private sector partnerships, boosting strategic communications, augmenting connectivity and educational exchanges, coordinating multilateral collaboration, and streamlining its funding instruments are all crucial for India in translating potential into substantive outcomes. Adopting more targeted ‘country-specific’ approaches tailored to local contexts rather than a one-size-fits-all strategy will also serve India’s interests better moving ahead. Africa offers India the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in promoting a different model of inclusive, participatory and sustainable development on the global stage. As Prime Minister Modi affirmed, India and Africa together shape the future.
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