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Despite pandemic, African market still attractive to Spanish firms

By Olivier Caslin, Marie Villacèque in Madrid
Posted on Monday, 22 February 2021 17:27

migrants' route from Senegal to Canarias Islands (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)/AB102/20329682340169//2011250648

Via the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre, several African and Spanish experts from Madrid, Las Palmas on the island of Gran Canaria and in Accra, Ghana, debated online about security in the Sahel on Thursday, 5 November, 2020.

Their goal? To highlight Spain’s contribution to peace in West Africa. At the beginning of October, Spain’s foreign affairs minister Arancha González Laya returned from a tour of Niger and Chad as general assembly president of the Sahel Alliance.

As a member of the alliance since January 2018, Spain is involved in 91 projects, for which a total of €124m ($147.1m) has been earmarked. Spain will also lead the European Union Training Mission in Mali in January 2021, for which it is the largest contributor in terms of personnel. Finally, the Spanish Guardia Civil is leading the European Union (EU) Groupes d’Action Rapides – Surveillance et Intervention au Sahel (GAR-SI Sahel) project to create gendarm­erie units in Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger.

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Since the adoption of the Africa III Plan in March 2019, the Spanish government has set its sights on Africa. Much more ambitious than the two previous plans, this one is built around four objectives: peace and security, economic growth, consolidation of African institutions and regulation of migration flows, and for the first time it has no time limit.

Admittedly, the global health crisis has slowed down some of its initiatives. “I had a budget of more than €1m for the Africa III Plan and I spent almost nothing,” says Raimundo Robredo Rubio, director general for Africa at the foreign affairs ministry. “For example, we postponed the visit of African mayors to Madrid in the fall and an exchange programme [for officials] with the African Union.”

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However, most of the promises made have already been fulfilled. Spain opened an embassy in N’Djamena this year, bringing its embassies in sub-­Saharan Africa to 24 – the fourth-largest network for a European country in Africa. Each embassy has its own series of objectives. In Dakar, the first Cervantes Institute – promoting Spanish language and culture –outside the Maghreb is due to be inaugurated in 2021, with another planned for Côte d’Ivoire, where “demand for Spanish courses is high,” says Robredo Rubio.

A gateway for migrants

Since September, the resumption of the migratory sea route to the Canary Islands has made the Spanish-owned archipelago the main gateway to Europe, with one out of every two migrants passing through Spain.

With 5,328 arrivals in October, the islands recorded their highest monthly figure in the past 10 years. The tightening of controls in the Strait of Gibraltar has led migrants to abandon Mediterranean routes, and, despite the coronavirus crisis, migrants remain determined to reach Europe.

The Spanish government has begun negotiations with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), which could involve the cooperation of Senegal and Mauritania but also seeks to contribute more broadly to the socio-economic development of African countries. Its official development assistance jumped from €104.2m in 2015 to €672.8m in 2019. Madrid also counts on important educational and health networks in its Africa activities.

In July, the trade and industry ministry presented its new Horizonte África strategy to strengthen Spain’s economic and institutional presence on the continent. Despite weak growth due to the pandemic, the African market remains attractive for Spanish firms in search of new prospects.

Spanish companies from the construction, water and energy, transport and agribusiness sectors are active on the continent. Some of the names include construction group TYPSA and transportation-­focused Marguisa and Indra.

TYPSA, a leader in Africa

Early last October, TYPSA won two tenders to supervise the first phases of the construction site of the Luanda technological zone in Angola. Piloted by Huawei, the zone has the backing of the Angolan government and the African Development Bank. It is due to be inaugurated in December 2021. The firm won €45m in deals in 2019, a 100% increase over 2015.

TYPSA got its first contract in Africa in the 1970s to supervise the Al Izdihar dam in Algeria. Since then, it has grown its presence to some 30 countries, with permanent offices in Tunisia, Morocco and Kenya.

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TYPSA’s teams are currently supervising the construction of Bugesera international airport in Rwanda and the Kalâa Kebira dam in Tunisia, where they are also providing technical assistance for the construction of six desalination plants. In March, the group was appointed to work on the project to rehabilitate 330km of the Belabo-Ngaounderé railway line in Cameroon. In 2021, it will start work on 170km of roads in Angola’s Cabinda enclave.

Marguisa has been the top maritime operator in Equatorial Guinea for more than 30 years, transporting mainly citrus fruits and timber from the former Spanish colony. The company’s activities are now much more diversified since it works with containerised, roll-on/roll-off and other goods. It belongs to the holding group Sea & Ports, and this has helped it to strengthen its presence in Africa, where it has about 20 establishments scattered along the coasts between Tunisia and Angola, but also in Latin America, Asia and in the ports of northern Europe.

Digital technologies

In recent years, many African countries have invested in their transport and energy infrastructure, while at the same time increasing urban development. Today, they are seeking to make these various facilities safer and more efficient through digital technologies. This is where Indra comes in.

The group first gained a foothold in North Africa, mainly in the field of technologies applied to transport and the defence sector. Today, Indra focuses on air traffic management – where it works with the main navigation service providers such as Asecna, which covers 17 countries – and energy. It has two regional offices in Dakar and Nairobi.

Following in the footsteps of large corporations, more and more Spanish companies are betting on Morocco as a platform for sub-­Saharan Africa. This is the case, for example, of the Basque company Tudefrigo, which specialised in refrigerated transport. It set up a base in Tangiers in 2011, from where it also serves Mauritania and Senegal.

In order to give a new dynamism to its Africa policy objectives, the Spanish government has appointed a diplomat on special mission for the Africa III Plan – Alberto Virella, who was ambassador to Senegal between 2015 and 2020.

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He prepared the first Mesa África, which took place in November in Madrid. This meeting for Spanish civil actors in Africa – NGOs, think tanks and the private sector – “is a very innovative tool that has no equivalent in any other department of the ministry,” insists Robredo Rubio, arguing that this shows that Africa remains a priority of Spanish foreign policy.

With all these efforts and resources for peace and development in West Africa, Madrid intends to play a leading role on the continent.

This article is available as part of the print edition of The Africa Report magazine: ‘Africa in 2021 – Who will be the winners and losers of the post-Covid era?’