INTERVIEW: Connecting continents

Doaa A. Moneim, Thursday 26 Aug 2021

Regional Director for the MENA region of Enterprise Singapore Sugumaran Devaraja spoke with Al-Ahram Weekly about African potential

Connecting continents

The Africa Singapore Business Forum (ASBF), a platform for business exchange and boosting trade between Africa and Asia, kicked off on Monday for its sixth edition and is scheduled to conclude on 27 August.

Organised by Enterprise Singapore, a Singapore government agency dedicated to business growth, the forum gathers over 2,000 business and government leaders from 30 countries to explore partnerships and growth opportunities among countries on the two continents, particularly amid the ongoing challenges imposed by Covid-19.

The 2021 edition of ASBF identifies opportunities in key sectors, including digital technology, financing, innovation, manufacturing, sustainability and urban solutions, Sugumaran Devaraja, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region at Enterprise Singapore told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Devaraja said Singapore was committed to working with African companies to develop the post-Covid-19 economy. Noting the resilience of Africa in the face of the pandemic, Devaraja said that this was an unprecedented crisis that had impacted all countries around the world, but that the African economies had shown particular resilience in managing it.

The pandemic had thrown curveballs at the various responses of governments, but they had learnt to adapt and evolve their responses depending on their needs, he added.

Africa is a diverse region characterised by different cultures, languages, and stages of development, but Devaraja said that despite this diversity the African countries had been quick to set up the Africa Task Force for the coronavirus in the early stages of the pandemic to coordinate responses across the continent.

Volunteers had come together to produce an open-source Africa Covid-19 Response Toolkit that allowed any government or public entity to develop further tools to respond to the pandemic, Devaraja explained.

“Africans are known for their ingenuity and resilience,” he added.

He noted that when supply chains had been impacted and lockdowns had become inevitable, African businesses and startups had stepped up, some pivoted to medical supply manufacturing. Startups had created new applications to track crowds and supplies and robots and drones had been used to minimise direct human interactions.

“Digital solutions and technology have been one of the bright spots for Africa’s development, driven by the mobile revolution,” Devaraja said, stressing that this was one area Africa could count on in the recovery trajectory.

The Africa region accounts for over 60 per cent of the global transaction value of mobile money in 2021, despite being home to only 16 per cent of the world population, he said.

This interest in new banking practices was particularly true for Egypt, where the surge in fintech investment and digital banking growth were paving the way to new recovery paths for the country.

“The pandemic only expedited the spread of technology across the region… and encouraged many African governments to reduce barriers to signing up,” he said. “Singapore companies have recognised this opportunity and are forging partnerships in healthtech, edtech and fintech in various African markets,” he added.

According to Devaraja, initiatives such as Boost Africa launched by the African Development Bank and the European Investment Bank aim to harness the region’s potential and spur entrepreneurship and innovation across Africa.

Meanwhile, the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) will also play a role in this regard. AfCFTA has created the largest free-trade area in the world, based on the over 50 African countries that it brings together under its umbrella, with a combined GDP of $3 trillion.

AfCFTA will connect 1.2 billion African consumers in a single market and will reduce trade costs and enable Africa to integrate further into global supply chains, Devaraja noted. “This brings tremendous opportunities for companies to diversify their trade and investment mix. Distribution networks will be enhanced, and opportunities in manufacturing, consumer and lifestyle goods, transport and logistics and real estate are set to grow significantly. All these things add to the attractiveness of the region,” he said. 

In Egypt, Devaraja said that the country’s light-manufacturing and garment sectors were expected to benefit from the AfCFTA agreement coming into effect, providing a bigger market for Egyptian manufactured goods. However, the easing of logistics bottlenecks and red tape was key to these materialising, he added.

Singapore companies’ interest in Egypt is due to the country’s growth potential driven by its population size and strategic location, he said.

To facilitate more partnerships between companies from both countries, Enterprise Singapore will continue to engage Egyptian companies in order to understand their problems and match them with Singapore companies with the right solutions that can meet their needs, Devaraja said.

He said that Singapore companies were exploring investment opportunities in the Suez Canal Economic Zone due to its strategic position, adding that Singapore ports and logistics firms were interested in having a presence there. Singapore food-processing companies were benefiting from Egypt’s location to manufacture for African countries, he added.

“We also see opportunities in the infrastructure, hospitality, and digital transformation sectors and greater cooperation in partnerships between Singapore companies and larger Egyptian companies, connecting the technology and innovation ecosystems of both countries to promote Singapore as a destination for Egyptian businesses to set up a presence as a gateway to Asia and for their innovation and research and development (R&D) needs,” he said.

More trade activity and business visits will resume once the Covid-19 pandemic reduces, he stated.

Assessing Egypt’s policies to alleviate the impacts of the pandemic on its economic and business scene as an emerging market, Devaraja said that Covid-19 had hit just as the reforms of the previous years had been set to begin paying off, with consumer demand rising and salaries catching up to their pre-currency-flotation levels.

“Thanks to the improved fiscal position of the country and the steps taken to increase regulatory efficiency, financial inclusion, and digitalisation, Egypt was well placed to take the measures necessary to respond effectively to the pandemic with a coordinated response by the government and the private sector,” he said.

Like the UAE, the Egyptian government had sought to strike a balance between mitigating the spread of the virus and allowing the economy sufficient operating room to sustain the livelihoods of workers and employees, he noted.

Singapore companies operating in Egypt across different sectors had said that the economy had been resilient despite the pandemic and had thanked the Egyptian leadership for steering the economy through earlier “dark days,” he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: