NewsNorth AfricaJapan: We are more meticulous than the World Bank - Tanaka


Posted on Thursday, 11 April 2013 16:25

Japan: We are more meticulous than the World Bank - Tanaka

By Nicholas Norbrook in Tokyo

Akihiko Tanaka President, Japan International Cooperation Agency/Photo©JCAJapan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) prides itself on the planning behind its loans, grants and technical assistance. The agency's new president is looking to put know-how from Asia and South America to work in Africa.


Among the pomp and swagger of China and India's arrival into the heart of African economic life, Japan's presence on the continent is occasionally overlooked.

The second-largest developed economy in the world does not import the same type and quantity of raw materials as its Asian neighbours do.

Most of Japan's companies sell products at a price point that does not interest the majority of African consumers.

Two-thirds of Japan's imports from the continent are from a single country, South Africa.

But though Beijing's regular gathering of African heads of state may prompt headlines of Chinese largesse, Japan's aid agenda towards Africa has also been quietly growing.

The appointment of Sadako Ogata as head of the newly re-organised JICA in October 2003 marked a pivot to Africa after 30 years of Asian and then Latin American focus.

Ogata's legacy for the organisation has been a far deeper field presence in Africa and a large increase in technical cooperation, loans and grants.

Her successor is the silver-haired and debonair Akihiko Tanaka, a professor and former vice-president of the University of Tokyo, who became the president of JICA in April 2012.

For Tanaka, JICA lives and dies by the quality of its technical assistance rather than by simple outflow of financial aid.

"In terms of concessional loans, our current balance is probably the largest in the world, comparable to the Asian Development Bank, but we are more meticulous about our technical aid than the World Bank or the development banks," says Tanaka.

He says that Japan's technical assistance is effective because of the manner in which it is combined with grants and loans in a holistic package.


One area that African politicians have been watching closely is the potential for cooperation with Japan in agriculture.

"One of our great achievements is the development of the Brazilian Cerrado, a barren area south of the Amazon," says Tanaka.

"Japan started technical assistance there in the 1970s, sending our agricultural scientists to Brazil, bringing their scientists to Tokyo, conducting joint research on the kind of soya bean that could grow in a tropical environment."

This assistance included JICA loans to help foster cooperatives that boosted small farmers where previously Brazil's large-scale farmers had held sway.

The result is a world-beating Brazilian food export sector.

Importantly, Japan's assistance was critical in upgrading Brazil's research capacity.

"Embrapa [Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária] is now probably the world's largest agricultural research institute," says Tanaka, "but back then when we started the project Brazil had no measuring equipment and was lacking all manner of technical apparatus that we helped provide with our grants."


A similar process occurred with salmon.

"Chile is now the second-largest producer of salmon in the world, but in the 1970s there was no salmon in the southern hemisphere," says Tanaka.

Experts from the north of Japan, where there is a thriving farmed salmon industry, helped bring know- how and finance to kickstart Chile's pisciculture industry.

Japan is already active in promoting agricultural knowledge in Africa.

Keen observers of African agriculture will be familiar with New Rice for Africa (NERICA), a specially developed variety, which saw the light of day in 1996 after joint funding from JICA, the African Development Bank and United Nations Development Programme.

"We are still in the middle of its development, but our target of doubling African rice production is moving more or less in the scheduled manner," explains Tanaka, while pointing out the bottlenecks in African agriculture, including poor infrastructure, which add significant costs when getting crops to market.

"Unless farmers feel that they can profit by growing rice, be it NERICA or whatever, there is no incentive, and incentives are essential," he concludes.

It's hard to fault schemes that help achieve African food security, but the director-general of JICA's Africa department, Eiji Inui, admits that these schemes also help insulate Japan – a food importer – from violent fluctuations in the commodities markets.

"It makes sense to help Africa cut its own import bill to secure our own price stability," argues Inui. This imperative may explain JICA's coordination of a trilateral aid project in Mozambique.

"Our experience in Cerrado is the predecessor to what we are doing in Mozambique," explains Tanaka.

The ProSavana project brings JICA investment alongside Brazilian agribusiness companies to northern Mozambique.

The project is not without its critics, who are worried that the Brazilian companies will throw peasants off their land. But for Inui, "Agricultural development must be about social inclusion, not land grabs."


As living conditions and wages in China improve, some believe Africa is the next 'low-cost' destination for manufacturing. "Actually, labour costs in Africa can be quite high," says Tanaka.

Ultimately, African countries pursuing industrialisation will want to boost agriculture first, he says, cautioning against trying to move directly into large-scale manufacturing, as it would also mean migration from the countryside to the cities.

"This may create terrible urban problems," Tanaka argues.

Rather, he expects Africa to follow the Brazilian model of letting agriculture soak up excess labour first●

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