It is not often encompassing “business philosophy” paradigms are introduced to refresh the way things are done on the continent, as happened at the-just concluded Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI) in Nairobi, Kenya.
And it probably helped that Japan came with a basket of goodies to sweeten the message. The spirit of the conference was replete that Africa should look east for more than development aid and adopt a philosophy of pragmatic self reliance that has served the Japanese well.
In that message the significance of the TICAD VI lay: That, the Japanese “kaizen” philosophy could work in Africa, too.
Kaizen is the Japanese practice of continuous improvement that is guided by deceptively simple principles. One of these principles presupposes that “good processes bring good results”, with another emphasising to “go see for yourself to grasp the current situation”.
It may be true that the continent is steadily progressing under the “Africa Rising” motif and no longer needs to be patronised with aid. But, in the famous words attributed to the former US President, Ronald Reagan, it is always prudent to “trust, but verify.”
And, after this, apply another kaizen injunction to “speak with data, [and] manage by facts”.
So it was a retinue of more than 75 business executives of major Japanese firms accompanying their Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, to Nairobi.
“What Japanese companies desire on the part of Africa is very clear,” he explained during the opening of the conference. “They seek the establishment of safe business environments and the realisation of free and stable corporate activities.”
The conference, he said, was aimed at exchanging views on industrialisation, building resilience in health systems and building inclusion and stability for prosperity for all.
Prime Minister Abe’s sentiments were quite telling, in that the need for TICAD was mutual, knowing that the Japanese economy has been flagging for some time, even if it still retains some muscle to do its bit to spur along Africa’s resilience and socio-economic development.
Consequently, he pledged $10 billion for infrastructure development in Africa, scaling down from the $32 billion he pledged in 2013 during TICAD V in Yokohama, Japan.
The shortfall would be filled by private sector’s investments that would push the amount to $30 billion, he said.
Japan would further pump in $500 million for vocational training for 50,000 youths in Africa to dissuade them from joining terrorist groups, with the hope that by the end of 2019, about 9.6 million youths would have benefited from the training.
On their part, leaders and representatives from the 54 African nations resolved “to promote social stability by responding comprehensively to security concerns. In this regard, we emphasise that protecting and empowering individuals, especially youth and women, families and their communities by improving access to education, technical and vocational training, job creation and opportunity, and promoting social cohesion, are fundamental.”
I would want to believe that by the end of the two-day conference the leaders had warmed to kaizen when they agreed that the private sector should be given more room to do business, as 22 Japanese firms signed 73 MoUs with development agencies from 26 African countries and international organisations in attendance.
Unlike China which mainly channels its grants to Africa through government-to-government arrangements, Japan will be mostly disbursing the funds through development agencies, among them the African Development Bank.
It, therefore, was not lost on observers to compare China’s heft in Africa with the Japanese generosity.
During a similar conference hosted by China in December last year in South Africa – the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) – Beijing pledged $60 billion to go into infrastructure.
It goes to show the might of China’s economic assertiveness on the continent, whose trade with Africa is worth $220 billion, about ten times that with Japan. China has 14 per cent trade with Africa, while Japan has a paltry 1 per cent.
One may not argue with the numbers, but the kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement is something Africa could live by if it is to completely wean itself off aid.