Japan pledges up to 3.2 trillion yen in aid to Africa

Japan unveiled on Saturday a new five-year aid package for Africa worth up to 3.2 trillion yen in government and private-sector assistance, vowing to help the resource-rich continent improve security so that more Japanese companies can do business there.

On the first day of a three-day international conference on African development, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the plan that includes 1.4 trillion yen in official development assistance, throwing his support behind the continent's efforts to boost growth and raise its status as a business and investment partner.

"Japan will join forces with Africa to turn the continent into an appealing investment destination," Abe said in his speech during a session of the fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development.

"We need Africa's willingness and determination to become such an appealing investment destination and do its own part so that it can fully maximize its potential," the prime minister added.

Abe said that developing human resources, promoting universal health coverage and nurturing agriculture -- areas where Japan has strengths -- will be instrumental in fostering growth in Africa.

The aid package includes extending about 650 billion yen in loans to help build up basic infrastructure over the next five years, with Tokyo set to aid the development of 10 African countries through strategic master plans.

It also places priority on capacity building by helping to train 30,000 Africans so they can get jobs.

Under a new scheme called the African Business Education Initiative for Youth, or ABE initiative, 1,000 African students will have opportunities to study and become interns in Japan, as part of the broader drive to nurture young people who can work as a bridge between their countries and Japan.

As food scarcity is one of the challenges facing Africa, the prime minister said Japan will help the continent make the transition from agriculture that "enables the farmer to eat" to one that "enables the farmer to earn money."

The conference comes as Japan shifts toward treating Africa not just as an aid recipient but as an economic and investment partner, with the continent expected to show continued and robust growth.

For Japanese companies, however, security has been one of the barriers to operating in Africa and the prime minister made this point clear.

"We need your cooperation to ensure the safety of Japanese companies doing business in Africa," Abe said.

Japan's Self-Defense Forces will continue to play a role in Africa's fight against terrorism and piracy, especially in waters off Somalia, but safety concerns persist among the Japanese public after the hostage crisis at an Algerian gas plant in January that killed foreign nationals, including 10 Japanese.

Many participants from Africa expressed their intention to create an investment-friendly environment in Africa that is "unique and different" from the past.

They also agreed that it is necessary to strengthen the public-private sector partnership, especially in infrastructure -- an area that Hiromasa Yonekura, chairman of the Japan Business Federation, the nation's top big-business group also known as Keidanren, said was "a basic condition for investment."

Still, that agreement comes with cautious optimism.

"What we need is genuine and effective partnership," a Mauritian minister said. "We do not need fly-by-night operators nor the private sector which is predatory."

The latest aid package is symbolic of Japan's determination to catch up with China, an Asian powerhouse running ahead of Japan in the amount of aid and investment in Africa.

Possibly alluding to China, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said Japan should step up its presence in Africa.

"It is ironic the Japanese involvement in the area of investment in the continent is a far cry from the kind of huge presence it should by now have achieved compared to relative newcomers currently active in Africa," Desalegn, jointly chairing the conference with Abe, said at the opening session.

Leaders and delegates from more than 50 African nations are discussing at TICAD how to ensure quality growth around the continent, and are set to adopt a declaration and action plans on their last day of talks Monday.

International organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank and for the first time the African Union helped co-organize the latest TICAD, which has been held every five years in Japan since its inception in 1993.

In his opening address, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said peace, security and development should be tackled together because of their linkage.

"African countries and people are building their future. We can reach out to support them," the world body's chief said.

As the deadline approaches in 2015 for the Millennium Development Goals -- eight goals to tackle issues such as poverty, hunger and HIV to be fulfilled globally -- Ban said, "We will make sure Africa's priorities are fully reflected in our post-2015 development agenda."

A series of sessions are scheduled to discuss trade and investment, gender equality, the empowerment of women and peace building. What lies ahead for Africa after the MDGs will be one of the major agenda items.

Meanwhile, Abe continued his series of bilateral talks with visiting leaders Saturday, while former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori took over as acting co-chairman of TICAD sessions.