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Turkey seeks economic salvation in Africa

As global investment opportunities dwindle, Ankara goes on a financial safari.

Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki (R) welcomes his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul at the State House in Nairobi, February 20, 2009. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL – While the rest of the world contemplates the economic tsunami that has devastated markets over the past few months, Turkey has turned its attention to Africa.

“For those seeking opportunities for investment, Africa is the new world, a place of opportunity,” said Serkan Alpman, a Turkish business owner in Nairobi, adding that this was mainly due to a lack of industrialization.

The global flight from anything but the safest investment has crippled emerging markets like Turkey. This January their imports fell by more than 40 percent year-on-year while exports fell by a quarter.

As global demand falters, with Europeans and Americans pinching pennies in an effort to ride out the crisis, Turkey’s small- and medium-size enterprises have been seeking alternatives to their export markets.

Turkey has increased its trade volume with African nations from around $5.4 billion to $13 billion in less then three years, and is targeting $30 billion by the end of 2010.

Historically, the Ottoman Empire had considerable relations with Africa — aided by the fact that African states such as Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Sudan were totally or partially subject to Ottoman rule. With the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, however, contact between Turkey and Africa all but broke off.

Over the past decade and a half, Turkish policymakers have carefully shaped an African dimension to Turkey’s foreign policy that is increasingly involved in a dizzying range of sectors from trade to transport, health to humanitarian aid.

Turkey has made inroads into Africa’s transport sector with scheduled flights of flagship carrier Turkish Airlines to regional hubs of Addis Ababa, Khartoum, Lagos, Johannesburg and, most recently, Nairobi.

Ankara also plans to venture into Africa’s maritime sector, with investment in key facilities such as the Port of Mombasa.

Last month, Abdullah Gul visited Kenya and Tanzania — becoming the first Turkish president to pay an official visit to these sub-Saharan nations — to expand Turkey's relations with the two. During his trip Gul pointed out that all but two African countries had supported Turkey's candidacy in 2008 for a two-year, nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council.

"The Turkish Republic will be the spokesman for Africa at the UN,” Gul said. “It will support Africa on all of its issues.”

Gul's visit to sub-Saharan Africa is a continuation of Turkey's Africa initiative, which began when the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, declared 2005 the "Year of Africa." Increasing Turkish investment in Africa represents a smooth meshing of both governmental and business policies.