This week, the government of Singapore will be hosting its third Africa-Singapore business forum. The forum will bring African private and public sector leaders to Singapore to discuss investment opportunities across the continent. But the forum could also serve a more strategic purpose by encouraging a broader evaluation of Singapore's relationship with the continent.
Today, China is by far the most active Asian player in Africa. But with the right approach, Singapore could be at the forefront of Asian engagement - even supplanting China.
China's trade with Africa will total almost US$300 billion this year. Accurate figures for foreign direct investment (FDI) are more difficult to find, but here, too, the numbers are surely quite high - with multi-billion dollar investments in infrastructure, resources, and manufacturing spread over a large number of African markets. And this does not include the more than US$75 billion Beijing has committed to Africa over the past decade.
But this investment has not created positive feelings in Africa towards China. I spent the past two years living in Ethiopia and travelling to other countries in the region. During my time on the continent, I frequently heard government officials resentfully complain about the heavy-handedness with which the Chinese government has been flexing its political muscle.
African businesses, meanwhile, argue that Chinese companies do not abide by their contractual obligations. And African consumers regularly deride the poor quality of Chinese products that find their way into the marketplace.
Singapore's brand, by contrast, is very strong. Most African leaders are familiar with Singapore's story. Many have even explicitly stated that they would like their country to become the Singapore of Africa. Their desire to do so makes sense: the top priorities for most African countries include achieving rapid economic growth, maintaining political stability, and ensuring a safe environment in the face of terrorist threats, crime, and regional conflict. In the context of such goals, the Singaporean model seems very attractive.
Singapore is relevant to Africa for other reasons, too. First, many of the sectors in which Singapore excels are the same sectors in which Africa is arguably in greatest need of investment. These include shipping, seaports, airports, energy, financial services, and water sanitation, among many others.
Second, because Singapore is a small country, African leaders do not view it as posing a strategic threat. They would therefore not be concerned if Singaporean companies won tenders for projects of strategic significance, such as deep-sea ports and other vital infrastructure.
Third, Singapore serves as the key gateway to Asean. So, even though Singapore would not be able to match China in terms of overall trade and investment volumes, its ability to unlock the potential of the greater Asean region can multiply its significance in Africa many times over.
Of course, it is not as though Singapore is unaware of Africa. Indeed, Singapore's trade with Africa has been growing at over 10 per cent per year, and reached approximately US$11 billion in 2013. Singaporean FDI into Africa now stands at over $16 billion.
The point, however, is that Singapore has the potential to put in place a strategic partnership with Africa that could go far beyond merely achieving incremental increases in trade and investment.
Such a partnership would require a concerted and cross-functional effort on the part of the Singapore government. An interesting way to launch that effort would be for Singapore to host a high-profile summit for African leaders aimed at providing tools on how to apply the Singaporean model in an African context.
Thereafter, the Singapore Cooperation Programme, the primary platform through which Singapore offers technical assistance to other countries, could announce bold new initiatives aimed specifically at Africa. At the same time, the Singapore government might consider enhancing the resources available to International Enterprise Singapore (IES). This is the government agency charged with spearheading the overseas growth of Singapore-based companies and promoting international trade. With additional resources IES could achieve greater coverage across the African continent and also help market Singapore as the gateway to Asean.
Finally, the Singaporean government could - perhaps in coordination with the United States - consider looking at potential areas of security cooperation in the areas of counterterrorism and counternarcotics, among others.
Such a combination of steps would help to establish substantial goodwill at the government-to-government level, build key relationships, and increase private sector exposure to opportunities in Africa. All of this, in turn, could have a truly transformative effect on the level of engagement between Singapore and Africa.
With six of the world's 10 fastest growing economies, a population of over one billion that is expected to grow to four billion by 2100, and many other factors in its favour, Africa is poised for a breakout century. Singapore should seize the opportunity to establish a strong foundation for a lasting partnership.
Alexander Benard is COO of Schulze Global Investments, a private equity firm focused on frontier markets and headquartered in Singapore.