Kazakhstan Steps up Its Courtship of Africa

Kazakhstan has been laying groundwork aimed at taking its relationship with Africa to the next level.

It obtained an important seat at the continent’s table by obtaining African Union observer status in 2013. That gives it access to the 54 African countries that gather for the union’s annual meetings and other events.

For years Kazakhstan’s only embassy in Africa was in Egypt, but in the past three years it has opened two more — in South Africa in 2013 and Ethiopia this year.

Similarly, few of Kazakhstan’s top officials had visited Africa in the country’s more than two decades of independence until Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov broke the drought with trips to Ethiopia in 2013 and the upcoming one to South Africa this June. To be sure, Kazakhstan’s foreign ministers participated in multilateral meetings on the African continent before, but it was quite a long while before a proper bilateral visit was paid.

Another sign of Astana’s determination to strengthen relations with the continent is that Kazakhstan included business-with-Africa sessions in its high-profile Astana Economic Forum in 2014 and 2015.

In addition, it has agreed to its first joint venture with an African country — a deal with South Africa’s Paramount Group to assemble armoured personnel carriers and buses in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan has also shown it is concerned about the continent’s humanitarian challenges by providing food relief to Somalia and donating $350,000 to an international fund to fight Ebola.

The most dramatic sign of its courtship of Africa, however, is the announcement that President Nursultan Nazarbayev will visit the continent this year.

His trip to South Africa – his first ever bilateral visit to this African country – underscores the importance Kazakhstan attaches to building political, economic and cultural ties with the continent. (Nazarbayev did visit Johannesburg in 2002 to attend the UN summit, but again, there was no bilateral visit then.)

Kazakhstan’s trade with Africa has been small to date, a situation that it is determined to rectify. The petroleum- and minerals-rich country would be a natural partner for African nations interested in joint-venture oil, gas or mining operations.

Kazakhstan is also one of the world’s top 10 exporters of grain, but has had limited sales in Africa.

Egypt, the world’s largest grain importer, has been the only African country to make substantial purchases from Kazakhstan, the biggest buys being 750,000 tonnes in 2008 and 450,000 tonnes in 2010.

Kazakhstan hopes to change that with stepped-up marketing campaigns and new transportation routes to the continent. One of the routes, which opened last year, is a rail line that can carry Kazakhstan gain through Turkmenistan to Persian Gulf ports in Iran, where it can be loaded onto ships for Africa.

When Berik Aryn introduced himself as Kazakhstan’s first ambassador to the African Union in December of 2013, the chairman of the African Union Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, told him that Africa wanted to “grow beyond raw materials, increase our industrial base, build our infrastructure and better link our continent.”

Kazakhstan could help African countries in “priority areas such as agriculture, agro-processing, education, energy and industrialization,” Dlamini-Zuma said.

Aryn and Dlamini-Zuma met in Addis Ababa, the city where the African Union headquarters is located and where Aryn was also Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Ethiopia at the time.

At the opening of Kazakhstan’s embassy in Addis Ababa in March of this year, new Ambassador Yerlik Ali declared that the two countries needed “to work together on global issues such as anti-terrorism, human trafficking, drug trafficking, religious extremism and other global challenges.”

On the economic front, he said, they could partner in mining, agriculture, infrastructure development, medicine and education.

Kazakhstan’s economic relations with South Africa, a BRICS country, are developing faster than with any other sub-Saharan country. They have a long way to go, however. In 2013 South Africa exported only $3.5 million worth of goods to Kazakhstan. The main items were machinery, cars, and fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan exported even less to South Africa — $1.8 million in goods. Chemicals accounted for almost all of it.

Kazakhstan’s economic ties with three of the other BRICS nations – Russia, China and India – are in the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. As with South Africa, ties between Kazakhstan and Brazil are still developing.

Nazarbayev’s visit to Pretoria this year is likely to spur Kazakhstan-South Africa trade. The president loves signing economic agreements with other heads of state, so he’s expected to bring significant commercial proposals with him. No date or agenda has been announced for his visit. In addition to trade and investment, his talks with President Jacob Zuma and other South African leaders are expected to include international and regional geopolitics, nuclear issues and other topics.

An example of the kind of economic deals that Kazakhstan and South Africa hope to see more of is their military-vehicle- and bus-making joint venture. The venture, whose partners are Paramount Group, Kazakhstan Engineering and Kazakhstan Engineering Distribution, will assemble vehicles at a renovated plant in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.

The facility will crank out up to 360 vehicles a year beginning in late 2015. Kazakhstan said the plant should meet the bulk of its military-vehicle needs. Plans are for a sizable percentage of the output to be exported.

Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov put Kazakhstan and Africa’s limited economic ties into perspective at this year’s Astana Economic Forum on May 21. In the two-and-a-half decades after Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, he said, both sides were preoccupied – Kazakhstan with crafting a new political and economic system and Africa with development.

A few years ago, after Kazakhstan had built a stronger economy and social safety net, “we started turning a keen eye on Africa.” Now is the time for Kazakhstan to pay even more attention to the continent, he said.

“Africa is a continent with huge potential,” Idrissov said. “It is rich in human capital” and much of its population is young. It’s time to invest in them, he said.

If Kazakhstan and Africa strengthen their ties as planned, the people of the continent will certainly be among the beneficiaries.

Marshall Comins and Dmitry Yermolaev are the press and investor relations directors of the Kirishi-2 Oil Refinery, Russia’s first “waste oil” refinery, set to launch in 2017. Experts in Eurasia-Africa relations, they are also managing partners of the Africa Investment Agency.

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