You will find few people more enthusiastic about business relations between Africa and Singapore than Shabbir Hassanbhai, chairman of the Africa Business Group (AfBG). This body was created during the inaugural Africa-Singapore Business Forum in 2010 with the specific aim of acting as the link between Singaporean and sub-Saharan African companies.
The AfBG itself comes under the umbrella of the Singapore Business Federation, the apex organisation of all companies operating in the country. Hassanbhai is also vice-chairman of the Singapore Business Federation, which means that companies wishing to engage with Africa, or African companies looking for opportunities in Singapore have a seamless connection with virtually all business organisations and firms in Singapore.
The vice-chairmen of the African Business Group represent some of the most important firms with the largest investments in Africa. They include: Sumit Aggarwal, Standard Chartered Bank Singapore; Haresh Aswani, Tolaram Corporation; Neal Chandaria, Comcraft; V. Srivathsan, Olam International; Kuok Khoon Hong, Wilmar International; Darius Lim, Pavilion Energy; Elson Ng K., Golden Fortune Capital; Graeme Robertson, Intrasia Capital; Christina Tan, GMT Investcorp; Teo Siong Seng, Pacific International Lines; and Yao Xing Liang, GMG Global.
Hassanbhai, himself a successful businessman with a fascinating history, is also the non-resident High Commissioner to Nigeria. This means that while he lives in Singapore instead of in Nigeria, he acts, to all intents and purposes, as the Singaporean Ambassador to Nigeria. Incidentally, Nigeria is one of the very few African countries to have a full ambassador resident in Singapore.
‘ASEAN, of course, is our main playground and the rest of Asia is huge but, as we have all learnt, markets can suddenly dry up or even collapse’
He makes several official trips to Nigeria per year but is always available to meet business delegations from Africa or to give real-time advice and provide contacts to the increasing number of Singaporean companies that are beginning to take an interest in Africa.
Behind his genial, calm exterior, Hassanbhai has enormous appetite and capacity for running organisations. Apart from being involved in his family businesses dealing in recycling of scrap metal and timber and an independent director of public listed companies, he is also co-chair of the Singapore-Oman Business Council, chairman of the Middle East Business Group, is a vice-president of Singapore Indian Development Association and has served as president of the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
He is also chairman of the advisory board of the recently set up Centre for African Studies in conjunction with the Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation. The centre is the first of its kind in Southeast Asia and is providing business insights into African markets for the public and private sectors.
In a nutshell, once the government had come to the conclusion that there was real business to be done between Singapore and Africa, and had asked Hassanbhai to bend his considerable organisational and networking skills to the task, he has been leaving no stone unturned in his bid to galvanise interest in Africa and make fruitful connections work.
“At the first Africa-Singapore Forum in 2010, there was a lot of enthusiasm from companies based here and who had been trading in Africa for a while but for the rest, Africa was just a blank with wild animals and unstable governments,” he recalls. “Nevertheless, there was curiosity – after all, China, which is, of course, very important in this part of the world, was very active in Africa. If China was so keen to get into Africa, there had to be something there.”
Nevertheless, Hassanbhai believes that a great deal has developed over the past four years. “Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, Lee Yi Shyan, has been very active. He believes very strongly that Africa has tremendous potential for Singapore and he has been pushing for more intense economic relations. IE Singapore has also been extremely active and opened in June 2013 its 38th global office, in Accra, Ghana.”