On August 29th, 2019, the African Chamber of Commerce in Japan (AfCCJ) was officially announced during an official side event of the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VII) held in Yokohama, Japan.
Initiated by Inter Media Japan, under the patronage of the African Diplomatic Corp (ADC) in Tokyo, the AfCCJ was born in response to major changes occurring in Japan-Africa relations.
On the one hand, after losing a little steam, high-level engagement between Africa and Japan reached an all-time high since TICAD took place for the very first time in Africa (Kenya) in 2016 (TICAD 6). Furthermore, in Japan, both public and private sector leaders are beginning to rethink their relationship with the continent. In fact, currently underway is the creation of the Japanese Business Council for Africa (JBCA), a permanent joint council between Japan’s government and private sector actors to align, strategize and promote investment in Africa.
The JBCA will bring together officials from relevant government ministries and agencies (Foreign Ministry; Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry; etc.), highly influential private sector economic organizations (Keidanren; Keizai Douyoukai) and SMEs – including those already operating in Africa. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Japan has decided to make this year’s TICAD summit (TICAD 7) all about private sector opportunities, with People, Technology and Innovation as main themes of engagement.
On the other hand, on the African side, there are already 38 African diplomatic missions in Japan. These missions have made significant progress in high-level representation, politico-economic affairs and investment promotion.
Moreover, collective diplomacy initiatives have been blossoming to project a united, diverse and contemporary image of Africa to the Japanese public, as exemplified by the recent and successful second edition of “Ima no Africa” (Africa Now) event held in Yokohama during the month of May 2019.
That being said, while public sector-led engagement between Japan and Africa has picked up a healthy pace, private sector engagement from both sides remains stagnant.
On the Japanese side, despite approximately 700 Japanese companies reportedly operating in Africa, most of them rely on a handful of well-established Japanese trading companies which have been operating in Africa for several decades already. Each one of these large and resourceful trading companies have enough influence to engage with individual African governments bilaterally, which is a luxury that not all Japanese small-medium enterprises (SMEs) – making up 99% of Japanese businesses – can afford. Hence, Japanese SMEs venturing on their own in Africa remains a rare phenomenon.
On the African side, things are even more stagnant. The number of African businesses or entrepreneurs operating in Japan remains critically low. And while African embassies do their best to promote private sector business and investment opportunities (mostly via public sector and people-to-people engagement), the African private sector still lacks its own voice and representation in Japan. Additionally, Japanese investors and business people (especially SMEs), though very interested in expanding and reaping benefits in Africa, are struggling with morselled or lacking information/data to inform sound business/investment decisions.
In short, while private sector engagement is a mutual top priority between Japan and Africa, there is a huge void to be filled in order to enable and accelerate this much-needed engagement.
Enter the AfCCJ.
First, the AfCCJ is an organization created to complement efforts by the ADC to promote investment and business opportunities in Japan.
Secondly, the AfCCJ will act as a connector and representative of Japanese and African private sector actors in Japan and Africa. Its mission will be to “continuously promote and improve commerce, trade, cultural exchange between Africa and Japan in the spirit of sustainable development and mutual understanding.”
Similar to “traditional” chambers of commerce, the AfCCJ will be a conduit for trade, business and investment in and out of Africa. It will also be a networking and matchmaking platform for individuals and organizations interested and willing to conduct business and investment activities between Africa and Japan. Further, the Chamber will also represent its members in both Japan and Africa and advocate on their behalf for policies that facilitate and encourage the ease of doing business, partnerships and collaboration, and sustainable development.
“Continuously promote and improve commerce, trade, cultural exchange between Africa and Japan in the spirit of sustainable development and mutual understanding.” – Mission of the AfCCJ’
That said, given the current state of maturity of Africa-Japan private sector relations, and as a continental chamber of commerce, the AfCCJ must also compose with a unique set of challenges, which will be reflected in its structure and offerings.
For instance, in terms of investment promotion, the AfCCJ will not only help individual African countries and organizations to promote opportunities via the Chamber, but also enable the promotion of opportunities by region (neighboring countries), sector (industries), and regional-sectors (industries across regions). This includes the facilitation of bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral projects, including consortiums for larger scale projects.
Moreover, to address the lack and/or fragmentation of business-relevant information and data, the AfCCJ intends to not only aggregate and curate information from partner organizations, but also commission independent research in partnership with African and Japanese universities, and create original content. As a “one-stop shop” for African business data and information, the Chamber plans to act as an educational hub to deepen understanding between Africa and Japan in terms of culture, particularly with a focus on business culture.
Additionally, in this day and age, as innovation and entrepreneurship are key ingredients for creating dynamic economies while addressing today’s issues (including SDG-related issues), the AfCCJ intends to set up an Africa-Japan Incubator to foster the advancement of innovative, state-or-the-art projects between Africa and Japan. The incubator would connect young and creative start-ups with early investors and funding sources, as well as provide a space for community, collaboration and exchange of ideas.
To address this unique set of challenges, the AfCCJ wants to leverage the full extent of available technologies to create a modern-day chamber – a “chamber of commerce 2.0” – which would include features such as digital matchmaking, crowdsourcing, collaboration, streaming functions, to name a few. The same way e-commerce and digitization have disrupted entire industries, the AfCCJ hopes to disrupt the traditional model of chambers while augmenting the chamber experience of its members, particularly given the geographical distance between Africa and Japan.
The headlines are not just hype: Africa is growing, and it is growing fast. While public sector engagement between Africa and Japan is very encouraging, the same optimism needs to permeate through the private sector. Unleashing the full potential of private sector interconnections between Africa and Japan is crucial if both sides are serious about taking the relationship to the next level. This is where the AfCCJ comes into play.