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Brazil in Africa: ‘We need to reinvent ourselves’

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Friday, 9 February 2018 14:19

The head of the Brazil Africa Institute speaks with a certain nostalgia of the high tide of relations between the continent and the Latin American giant: “Go back to 2003. When former president Lula [who also set up the institute], said that Africa would be a priority for his government, he really meant it”, says João Bosco Monte. “He came to Africa nearly 30 times, to many places. This was the optimism. Brazil could smell the potential.”

And, to an extent, that potential was on its way to being realised, even beyond Africa’s five lusophone countries. Those trips brought over many Brazilian businesspeople. And companies like Odebrecht, Embraer and Embrapa won contracts to build roads, pump oil and farm land.

“But 14 years later, sadly, when former president Dilma came into government, she did not understand how big Africa’s market was. She had no vision about how important Africa should be for Brazil. So our companies started to feel like orphans.”

It’s not just the orphan problem that has silenced the previous buzz. Brazil’s whole political elite has been rocked by a series of corruption scandals that have unseated Dilma, and censured Lula. Odebrecht CEO Marcelo Odebrecht was arrested in 2015 for organising a huge kickback scheme across Latin American and African markets, and sentenced to 19 years in jail, while the US Justice Department levied its largest ever fine, some $2.6bn.

“We need to reinvent ourselves,” says Bosco Monte. “The way the government deals with the companies should be different. It was very bad, this symbiosis between business and government, the way they inter­act, not just in Africa but within Brazil, in Latin America, in China”.


But that closeness between govern­ment and the private sector has produced positive results, too – ­results that might better be emulated. For example, the government-run agricultural research organisation Embrapa: “It supplies research, technology and gets results. Just look at the Cerrado, its just like the savannah in Africa”, says Bosco Monte [of the vast area of Brazil that was made productive for agriculture through the addition of phosphorus and lime].

The Brazil Africa Institute wants to push further on agriculture, with a youth technical training programme starting on 9 October. Around 30 young Africans will be trained in an Embrapa facility in Brazil for two months, with a focus on adding value to cassava. “Nigeria is the biggest cassava producer in the world. But they lose so much value. If we compare the cassava production in Brazil and Nigeria, you would see billions of tonnes of cassava that you just throw away,” says Bosco Monte.

He also points to a higher-­geared partnership: taking Gulf money to fund Brazilian agribusiness know-how on African land: “The Saudis lack water, so we are discussing a triangular partnership project”. Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia appear first in line, though another similar scheme funded by Japan in Mozambique is not without its difficulties.

One of the frequent criticisms of China is that it is after African resources. And one of the frequently forgotten aspects of China’s intervention on the continent is that it sincerely wants Africa to develop, too – in part because it needs markets for its products. Might that be the case for Brazil, too? “Don’t you think the US needs markets, don’t you think France needs markets? One billion people could be good for everybody,” he says.

But getting Brazilian businessmen to understand that Africa makes sense for them is tough. That’s why the Institute is putting on its annual Forum this 23-24 November. It will bring African entrepreneurs and politicians to Fortaleza, in north-east Brazil, to show Brazilian businesses the opportunities. “The economy right now is not that good. So what do you do with your production?” says Bosco Monte. “Just cross the Atlantic. It’s just one river to cross! And you will see Nigeria, 200 million people. Go to Egypt, go to Ethiopia, 100 million more each…”.

That said, other businesses are seizing the moment. Angola Cables, for example, has run an undersea cable from Luanda to Fortaleza. And Brazil’s Positivo computer brand has set up factories in Rwanda, delivering 150,000 units. “The majority of the businessmen are sitting too comfortably. Every time they see challenges. They need to do to their homework!” says Bosco Monte.

From the October 2017 print edition

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