The Challenge for BRICS and Africa

BRICS leaders, from left, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh , Chinese President Xi Jinping , South African President Jacob
BRICS leaders, from left, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh , Chinese President Xi Jinping , South African President Jacob Zuma Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a group picture during the BRICS 2013 Summit in Durban, South Africa, Wednesday, March 27, 2013. Heads of State of BRICS nations met in the South African city of Durban for the two-day summit. (AP Photo/Sabelo Mngoma)

I am writing this from the BRICS summit in Durban, where it is clear that the huge momentum of these emerging markets --especially when it comes to their relationship with Africa -- is not slowing down. Over the last few days, I have spoken with heads of business and heads of states: it's clear that while countries like Turkey and Indonesia (including the $23.8 billion Airbus order last week) are flexing their financial muscle, there is still much more investment in Africa to come from BRICS.

The investment isn't just coming in infrastructure and mega projects. In Africa, middle class consumers now constitute more than a third of the population and the number of households with disposable incomes is projected to grow by 50 percent within 10 years. Not only is Africa rich in natural resources; its people -- young and growing more affluent -- are becoming a powerful economic force.

A report from the Brookings Institution recently noted that Brazil, Russia, India and China have "literally invaded the African continent, but not with arms. Instead they have invaded Africa with money, goods, ideas, and drilling and mining equipment." On the heels of the BRICS summit a comparative look at the different investments strategies in Africa is warranted. What are the Chinese doing, compared with Brazil, Russia and India, and which approach is most effective? What part does FDI play in the development of Africa? And is Africa giving away too much to foreign investors?

China's involvement is most notable, with trade between the two regions effectively reshaping many of Africa's economies. Across an estimated 49 African countries, China is investing in numerous sectors: mining, drilling, transportation, telecommunication, entertainment and real estate. China overtook the U.S. as Africa's biggest trading partner as long ago as 2009; and trade between China and Africa was worth $200 billion last year.

This intense engagement has not been without controversy. It's well-known that Chinese practices have sparked local resentment in some regions. On a broader, governmental level, there have been calls urging African leaders to recognize that China is "a competitor as much as a partner."

Russia too has been working to engage with Africa, though so far on a smaller scale. As Russia's oil resources become depleted, it is looking to Africa's untapped oil and gas reserves to complement its own supply. With its expertise in extracting energy, Russia has much to bring to this relationship; but it will be important for Africans to ensure that they avoid negative economic and environmental consequences that sometimes accompany the exploitation of natural resources.

With a long running history of involvement in Africa, India has become a key player in the development of the continent and two-way trade has risen at an unimaginably fast pace. India's focus on telecommunications, machinery and equipment as well as mining is likely to have many spin-off benefits for Africans -- in Uganda, for instance, Indian medical companies have forged joint ventures to make antiretroviral and anti-malarial drugs.

Then there is Brazil, which has spent the past decade enhancing its relationship with Africa. On the one hand, Brazil hopes to foster a market for its own produce and processed goods. But on the other, as an emerging nation that has struggled with poverty and hunger, Brazil has a wealth of knowledge to share: it sees itself as well positioned to forge a horizontal partnership with African nations, founded on similar experiences.

For African nations and their people, BRICS interest in Africa implies a complex set of risks as well as the potential for extraordinary benefits. Africa's resources ultimately belong to Africans. The aim of future policies must be to foster an African middle class that continues to grow and thrive.