Despite these efforts, he says, the lack of information about Africa – even such basic facts that the continent is made up of 54 very different countries at different levels of development – is still the main obstacle to greater economic ties between the two.
“The idea of setting up the Centre for African Studies came up in order to further try and fill this gap via education. We are also trying to persuade the national newspapers here to provide more coverage of Africa, particularly the business aspects.”
Each succeeding forum has ratcheted up interest in Africa, he says. “There was a higher level of representation during the second Forum with several ministerial delegations attending. This year’s Forum will raise the bar yet again. Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Tharman Shanmugaratnam will be the guest of honour.”
As a businessman with interests in many parts of the world, Hassanbhai is well aware of the need to diversify markets. “For us in Singapore, the traditional mature markets of Europe and the US are becoming more challenging.
“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. Africa is important for several reasons and it offers a wonderful opportunity to diversify. On the other hand, Singapore offers Africans the gateway to a market of 600m in ASEAN.”
He says that the situation can be looked at from two levels: level one involves government to government and the larger, publicly listed corporations – Temasek, Olam, Pavilion, Surbana and so on; and level two, involving “the smaller, bite-sized, street-smart activities”.
‘Africa is important for several reasons and it offers a wonderful opportunity to diversify. On the other hand, Singapore offers Africans the gateway to a market of 600m in ASEAN’
He is confident that the island’s throng of innovative and efficient SME-sector companies would find Africa a very fertile ground on which to thrive and grow, and at the same time go a long way to establishing the continent’s own industrial and service-related sections.
“Since 2010, we have been fine-tuning our approach to the Singaporean SMEs and, although the relationship is still at a delicate level, there has been a remarkable change of mindset. They are no longer reluctant to engage with Africa. Forums such as this one provide them with the opportunity to look at the options and see what they can tap into.”
At any rate, he says, Singaporean companies have always thrived in new markets – Vietnam, China, India. “We have generally been first movers and now have excellent experience in handling emerging markets. Our agencies, like IE Singapore, are all over the world. They are well trained in spotting and identifying opportunities and in hand-holding new companies in unfamiliar markets.”
But Shabbir Hassanbhai, like many other business people we talked to in Singapore, singles out the poor connections between African countries and the island as perhaps the most profound impediment to greater economic ties. At present, there is only one direct flight by Singapore Airlines (SIA)to Johannesburg although as a result of a code-share with Ethiopian Airlines, it has opened access to major cities.
SIA has freight services to Nigeria and East Africa that started two years ago. There is talk that India’s Tata and Singapore Airlines’ launch of a new airline could see new routes to several African capitals. “The other common grouses about Africa that you hear repeated in Singapore are the business of obtaining visas, lack of local banking support and facilities for managing risk,” he says.
What does his role as non-resident ambassador to Nigeria entail? “Nigeria is a very important market for many of our businesses here. My role is to bring our two countries closer together politically, economically and culturally. In addition, of course, I would like to spread our belief in good governance, something on which Singapore has built its success, and share our experiences, having gone through the metamorphosis from developing to First World country ourselves.”