African leaders are happy to look beyond Western aid and investments that come tied to pesky political conditions, like asking for free elections or letting the opposition out of jail. As a result, China, India and other Asian firms willing to look the other way are making major inroads across the continent.
Now, Turkey is joining the crowd and forging a route into Africa, setting its sights on Uganda, an East African nation with untapped reserves of oil and minerals. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Already, Turkish companies are developing Uganda’s agriculture and exporting Ugandan coffee beans. Diplomats collaborate on policing to combat cybercrime. In 2010, Turkey opened an embassy in Kampala. Delegations of investors now fly back and forth on new flight routes between the two countries.
Turkish investment in Africa totaled $47 billion in 2011.
Turkey is swiftly becoming a player in development aid to Africa, with Turkey’s investments in Uganda’s education system winning hearts and minds. Across the continent, Turkish investment reached $47 billion in 2011.
“Turkey has positioned itself as one the best partners for business opportunities and development in Uganda,” says Mike Nsereko, head of policy and advocacy at the Uganda National Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “We need that investment to bring in jobs, generate revenue and bring skills to develop our economy.”
Worldwide, Turkey’s largest foreign investments are in oil and mining, and Uganda is a long-overdue frontier for both. Gold, cement and copper production are on the rise. In 2006, U.K.-based Tullow Oil discovered 1.7 billion barrels of crude oil in western Uganda that has yet to be commercially pumped.
Turkey imports most of its oil, but some Turkish companies have become leaders in exploration, drilling and refining across the region. The Turkish exploration company Petoil is inaugurating its Africa exploration in Uganda. In 2012, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni visited Turkey to meet with officials from Petoil’s parent company. Still, Turkish firms will have to offer highly competitive bids if they hope to outbid Chinese construction companies for Uganda’s oil pipelines and other infrastructure.
In the case of Turkish-Ugandan trade, big business comes in small packages: small- and medium-size enterprises that “fill in the gaps” in Uganda’s construction- and extractives-centric economy, as Nsereko puts it. Even a decade ago, the Uganda National Chamber of Commerce and Industry partnered with Turkish investors to open a large meat-processing factory in Kampala. A new Turkish-Ugandan business council is working to help Turkish firms find their way into Uganda’s hotel- and restaurant-supply sector.
Small- and medium-size Turkish enterprises ’fill in the gaps’ in Uganda’s construction- and extractives-centric economy.
The council’s partner organization, the Uganda Global Business Association, is headed by Lokman Çinar, a Turkish businessman living in Kampala. Bilateral trade between the two countries reached an estimated $30 million last year. It’s a modest sum, to be sure, but Çinar predicts it will rise exponentially over the coming decade. “It’s the Ugandans who are driving that,” says Çinar. “The business people I know, some are really after quality, and those are the ones that go for Turkish goods,” including clothes, specialty foods and construction materials.
In 2000, Çinar arrived in Uganda for the first time as a student to learn English. By then, he says, Turkish businessmen had already make inroads into Uganda’s construction sector — roads and buildings.
Turks affiliated with the Fethullah Gülen Islamic sect began building high-class high schools in Uganda that taught an international curriculum alongside a traditional Ugandan one. It’s earned Turkey a certain respect.
“We have seen an influx of so many people coming from different parts of the world — China, India, Europe. But Turkey has been at the forefront in a number of areas, including education,” says Nsereko.
“Turkish culture is one that breaches Asia, Africa and Europe,” Çinar says.
Turkey’s testy ties to Europe can also elicit sympathy. In Istanbul, ferries zoom across the Bosporus, which divides the city between Europe and Asia — a metaphor for its East-West identity split. Today, after years of failed bids to join the European Union, many Turks are disillusioned.
Today, after years of failed bids to join the European Union, many Turks are disillusioned.
But the immediate phenomenon most likely to propel Turkish-Ugandan relations is also the oddest: Ugandan pineapples. Not imports of the fruit, but the phrase itself.
Uganda’s large, sweet pineapples have been caught up in a high-level political dispute — with the release of ambiguous audio tapes — and turned into a euphemism for dirty money that might or might not have been paid to do business in Uganda.
“There is a very big positive effect of the pineapple issue to the relations of business between the two countries,” says Çinar. “When [Prime Minister] Erdoğan talked about the pineapple, many people got thinking about Uganda.”
Uganda is not the only African partner for Turkey. Last month, when Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Istanbul, the two countries came to nine separate investment agreements. Among them was a promise by Turkey’s Export Credit Bank to offer financing for Turkish companies to build infrastructure, and a security partnership to bolster Kenya’s peacekeeping force in Somalia.
It used to be called South-South cooperation. These days, maybe it’s just good business.
Why you should care
China isn’t the only one raising its stake on the African continent. Turkey is also grabbing opportunities.