Be part of Africa's opportunity: Tharman

Singapore has strong links with its immediate region but needs to look further afield to diversify, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday.

"A more diversified strategy will help us to weather what comes in the global economy," he said.

He urged companies in Singapore to look to Africa.

"There's opportunity in Africa - a continent with huge potential, a sense of enterprise and a sense that something can be done to empower people and enterprises. We've got to be part of that opportunity."

Mr Tharman was speaking to about 400 business delegates yesterday at the fourth Africa Singapore Business Forum.

He said that Singapore could help to integrate Africa with Asia, particularly as a base for African businesses interested in expanding in Asia.

"Africa and Asia are going to be the biggest sources of consumption growth in the next 20, 30, 40 years, but if we want to integrate our economies, that needs trade and investment," he said.

A slew of initiatives were unveiled yesterday to accelerate Singapore-Africa links.

Trade agency International Enterprise (IE) Singapore announced the opening of its third African office in Nairobi, Kenya, offering Singapore firms more opportunities to head into East Africa. It also has offices in Ghana and South Africa.

Three bilateral deals were inked.

Singapore signed an avoidance of double taxation agreement with Ethiopia, a bilateral investment treaty with Mozambique and a bilateral air services agreement with Nigeria.

Singapore has bilateral investment treaties with six other African countries - Egypt, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Libya, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. Singapore-Africa trade has grown 5.2 per cent annually, reaching $11.5 billion last year.

Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S. Iswaran highlighted the significance of the agreements.

He said: "Beyond specific sectoral, tax and fiscal advantages, they signal an intent and commitment on the governments of both sides to want to deepen bilateral economic ties... That makes a big difference, and that gives added confidence to business people that governments are behind this and are promoting these links."

He said some needs in Africa play to the strengths of Singapore businesses, such as in urban solutions, oil and gas, and agribusinesses.

Speakers stressed Africa's wealth of opportunities even amid challenges such as governance.

Mr Bonang Mohale, chairman and vice-president of Shell Downstream South Africa, emphasised the huge informal economy in Africa with its untapped consumption potential. He gave an anecdote on mobile penetration, calling Africa "the only place where even the beggars, when you roll down the window to give them something, their cellphones go off and they say, 'Hold on, let me take a call.'"

He was also frank about Africa's challenges, citing issues with governance and project execution.

Mr Sunil Kaushal, Standard Chartered's regional chief executive for Africa and Middle East, said Africa's "formidable" potential was underscored this year, as it is resilient amid headwinds such as commodity price falls and global economic uncertainty.

He added that the bank is looking to invest more in Africa, highlighting opportunities in digital financial services in markets such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2016, with the headline 'Be part of Africa's opportunity: Tharman'. Print Edition | Subscribe