The Asia – Africa relationship has generally focused on a discussion of the relationship between various African countries and China. However, as well as China, Singapore is reacting positively to Africa’s improving investment climate despite the effect of low commodity prices.
The rise in investments
Africa has emerged as the leading destination for foreign direct investment (“FDI”) globally with significant investment from the UK, US and China. As a result of the increase in viable long-term opportunities in industries that Singaporean businesses have significant experience in, more and more investment relationships between African jurisdictions and Singaporean companies are being explored.
Some notable Singaporean investments have spurred an interest in Africa. In 2013, Temasek reportedly became a significant shareholder in Seven Energy, an oil and gas group based in Nigeria. In the same year, Pavilion Energy, a subsidiary of Temasek, was reported to have made its first acquisition in the continent by acquiring a stake in three gas blocks off the coast of Tanzania.
It has since been reported that investments into Africa from Singapore have been growing at more than 11 per cent annually since 2008.
Notable recent examples of indirect investment include those of sovereign wealth funds (“SWFs”). In March of this year, the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (“GIC”) was reported to have invested USD100 million in two Africanfocused private equity funds - Actis Real Estate Fund III and RMB Westport’s Real Estate Development Fund II. Though, GIC does not currently have a significant investment portfolio in African jurisdictions, these investments could see the beginning of a change of tactics for the SWF.
There is also a history of Singaporean family offices investing in mining assets in certain jurisdictions in Africa.
Singapore has one of the highest trade to GDP ratios and its growing partnership with African jurisdictions may reflect a motivation to achieve greater diversification among trade and investment partners. The government’s international trade initiative with Africa is an example of ‘the powers that be’ seeking to take advantage of another opportunity. The role of Singapore’s International Enterprise (“IE”) so far has been to foster relationships between African and Singaporean companies. IE Singapore is part of the State’s Ministry of Trade and Industry. In 2013 the body opened two overseas centres in Johannesburg and Ghana to facilitate business links between Singapore and the African countries. IE also launched the Africa Singapore Business Forum (the “ASBF”) in 2010.
The ASBF is a biennial event attended by a number of business and government leaders seeking to improve relations between the two regions. The next ASBF is due to be hosted in Singapore this August and aims to discuss the strategic growth of both regions.
Focus on East Africa
The East African region has emerged as a viable trade partner for Singaporean companies. In 2014 the Singapore Business Forum and IE Singapore organised a business mission to Tanzania and Kenya with the objective to promote bilateral economic cooperation and trade and investment opportunities. The business mission resulted in the signing of two memorandums of understanding between Kenya and Singapore. At the time the group director for Middle East and Africa at IE Singapore stated "East Africa's geographical proximity and historical trade links with Asia make the region a natural gateway into Africa for Singapore companies”.
Since then, in April this year, Singapore’s minister of trade and industry announced two East African ambitions; the intention to use the Dar Es Salaam Port in Tanzania as a trade link between the two states, with the offer of exchange programmes for Tanzanians to work at Singaporean ports; and a desire to share bilateral trade experience with Uganda, with a particular emphasis on agriculture.
The East African connection is also boosting the energy sector in both Singapore and East Africa. Singapore is growing as an oil and liquefied natural gas (“LNG”) trading hub in Asia and countries such as Tanzania and Mozambique are undergoing development to take advantage of their natural gas supply. With both regions facing the Indian Ocean, Singapore could play a bridging role, connecting LNG producers in East Africa to buyers in Asia, according to some commentators.
The lack of infrastructure in the majority of the African nations coupled with the increasing middle class offers many prospects for investment in African infrastructure by Singaporean investors.
Recent transactions have shown that Singaporean companies may be able to leverage off of their commercial experience in areas such as ‘urban planning’. Both Surbana International Consultants and Jurong International played a role in the urbanisation and industrialisation of the Singaporean landscape. In May 2015, Surbana entered into an arrangement with the Democratic Republic of Congo (“DRC”) for an urbanisation plan for DRC’s capital city. This arrangement would be one of a number of projects that Surbana has worked on since 2005 in different African jurisdictions. The two companies have since merged and it has been reported that Surbana Jurong sees Africa as a land of many opportunities amid strong demand for infrastructure, affordable housing and job creation through industrialisation. Since the merger, further contracts in Gabon and Ghana have been secured bringing the value of contracts for the last quarter of 2015 and first quarter of 2016 alone, to S$30 million.
A relationship that is not without its difficulties
Whilst the opportunities are there, some work still needs to be done with regard to the co-operation frameworks between African jurisdictions and Singapore. One key concern that has been noted is the lack of free trade agreements. In addition, the availability of bank finance can be a barrier for some Singaporean SMEs where projects are not seen as bankable, though with more successful cross border transactions this trend should change.
However, despite these difficulties, progress is being made: developmental experience is being shared through training programmes and study visits. IE Singapore continues to promote overseas growth of Singaporebased companies and international trade. Some bilateral investment treaties have been negotiated and the Ministry of Trade continues to host delegates from African governments supporting cooperation wherever possible. Singapore also has double taxation agreements with key jurisdictions in Africa such as Mauritius and South Africa.
Despite the economic slowdown in some of the major African jurisdictions, investment from Singapore to African jurisdictions presents a promising opportunity for Singaporean companies and African entities. With the need for infrastructure development, financial resources and expertise, this opportunity could prove mutually beneficial. Although the international framework between Singapore and African jurisdictions is not yet at an advanced stage, bilateral treaties are being agreed.
The aforementioned, coupled with the various cooperation arrangements will make for a robust base to solidify a Singapore – Africa investment relationship.
Finally, Singapore’s experience in the investment needs of these developing economies from other economies in the Asia- Pacific region such as India (significantly within the infrastructure sector) should serve to be an enabling factor for the growth of the Singapore – Africa investment narrative.