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India in Africa: Spreading the fragrance of goodwill

As plans big for the India Forum Summit in October, inviting all the 54 countries for the first time to its soil, it has reached out in many small but important ways to several of the countries for capacity building, not the least being helping Rwanda make optimal use of its aromatic plants.

India is to host the Third India Africa Forum Summit October 26-30, billed as one of the government’s biggest diplomatic engagements this year.

India’s outreach in Africa comprises in large measure of capacity building and of sharing its own developmental experiences gathered over decades with other developing countries.

While sharing expertise in IT, agriculture, English training, banking and even holding elections are much sought after under the popular Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC), there are times when countries make special requests – like Rwanda did. And India goes out of its way to fulfil these requests.

Rwanda sought India’s expertise in tapping its huge resource of aromatic plants to distill the fragrances into oils and using them in consumer products like shampoos, bath oils and the like.

Rwanda, a small land-locked country in east-central Africa, near the Equator with a population of over 12 million, has witnessed long ethnic strife. It is trying to rebuild its economy.

“They had no capacity to use the aromatic plants, to distill the fragrances. They requested us to hold a capacity building course on fragrances and flavours,” Kumar Tuhin, joint secretary in the ministry of external affairs’ Development Partnership II wing, who looks after ITEC, told IANS.

Around 20 Rwandan youths were sent last May to the Fragrance and Flavour Development Centre, Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh, which is under the ministry of micro small and medium enterprises. The youths were taught how to identify the different aromatic plants, like rose, basil, thyme, cypress and lemongrass, and also trained in partial distillation so as to isolate the different fragrances and aromas.

They were also taught how to convert the distilled aromas into marketable products, like in body oils, soaps, shampoos and the like, said Tuhin.

“They were very happy with their course. We are now doing a followup separately with them,” he added.

India also provided capacity building in agriculture to around 200 candidates from Kenya, Malawi and Liberia.

They were trained in agriculture, marketing, cold chain and storage techniques at the National Institute of Agricultural Marketing in Jaipur and the National Centre for Management of Agricultural Extension in Hyderabad.

The programme was “very useful”, said the official.

India is also setting up vocational training centres and IT centres of excellence in many of the African countries. India also has the Pan African e-Network Project.

According to Navtej Sarna, Secretary (West) in the Ministry of External Affairs, the e-Network project is one of India’s “most successful projects in terms of e-medicine and e-education”.

“The project is active in 48 African countries and has been working very well. It was to have been handed over to the African Union in 2014, but at their request we have continued to keep it going ourselves for another two years,” he said.

China has been engaging intensively with Africa over the years and is to hold its sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in this year. China also committed $20 billion to Africa during the 2012 summit in Beijing.

While China has begun focussing a lot on capacity building in Africa with mega and showpiece infrastructural projects, it lacks some of the major advantages that India has – the strength of India’s institutions – namely in English language, India’s Election Commission, which is a major learning model for many African countries, India’s democracy, and its election management, Sarna added.

Why this interest in Africa, a continent that has been largely portrayed in negative stereotypes?

Africa, which has just over a billion people, is home to a third of the planet’s mineral reserves, a 10th of the oil and two-thirds of the world’s diamonds. Over the past decade, Africa was among the world’s fastest-growing continents, a middle class as large as India and with an average annual rate of more than five percent.

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