Africa is being wooed ardently by everybody these days for trade and investment deals.
China has those regular economic summits it hosts for African countries. Japan followed suit, eager not to be left out of the African pie.
India, too. Even Turkey has joined in the act. A few days ago it was Russia’s turn. Over 40 African countries were represented, Kenya among them.
Commentators in the West were quick to sniff that Russia has little to offer. At any rate far less than China, or the West itself.
True, trade between Russia and Africa pales at about $20 billion, less than the US-Africa figure, which is at double that.
However, everybody is overshadowed by China’s humongous $200-plus billion bilateral trade with Africa.
Still, considering that America and China have vastly larger economies than Russia, the latter is not doing too badly as a proportion of its economic weight.
Again, African countries are disadvantaged in global trade deals anyway, and have little option than to take whatever comes along, whether Russian or even North Korean.
The other criticism is that Russia is only good at hawking military hardware. A lot was made of the fact that much of this was on display at the Sochi resort city where Russia hosted the summit.
And indeed Russia is the top – ahead of the US, Europe and China – exporter of arms to Africa (though the bulk of this hardware goes to mainly two countries – Egypt and Algeria).
Yet President Vladimir Putin was quick to point out that military equipment was being overtaken by other Russian exports to Africa, particularly agricultural products.
The Russians have also kept a tradition of giving thousands of university scholarships to Africans, including Kenyans, to study medicine and technical courses.
The latest available figure for Russian trade with Kenya is just below $200 million (Sh20 billion), with the trade balance being in Moscow’s favour.
The main goods the Russians export to us are steel, rubber, chemicals and solar panels. They import from us mainly tea, coffee and flowers.
That Sh20 billion is not peanuts. It is more than the trade figures with our populous northern neighbour Ethiopia, though the picture is bound to change greatly after the opening of the Kenya-Ethiopia highway and the completion of the Lamu LAPSSET corridor project.
Granted, Russia’s investment profile is low here, compared to China, the EU or Japan. But there are many areas the country can be of benefit to us.
As the world’s second largest oil producer, it is very strong in the energy sector and related petrochemical industries.
In fact, one of its oil companies is active in the petroleum sectors of Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana. Like Israel, the Russians are also strong in agribusiness.
In pharmaceuticals too. In fact, they are doing a lab for infectious diseases in Guinea, an idea that was mooted during the west African Ebola outbreak of 2014.
Russia has a deep industrial and technological tradition from its salad days as a superpower. A country that was the first to take a human being into space is not to be trifled with.
Right now, it is helping China build some sort of nuclear shield, which requires the kind of technical expertise only America would have. Of course, such esoteric pursuits are beyond our league.
Nonetheless, there is plenty of know-how we can tap from Russia in other fields. We can try them with dams for instance, and shun those dodgy Italian firms that go broke without warning and leave nothing to show on the ground.
Russia is not new to Africa. It was a key player in the 60s and 70s when it was instrumental in driving the colonialists out. It armed liberation movements from Angola to Mozambique to Guinea-Bissau.
Even the guerrillas of Zimbabwean nationalist Joshua Nkomo were supplied by Moscow.
Additionally, to deepen its connection with friends in Africa, Russia also undertook major projects those days which have had lasting economic impact.
One such was the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which counts among the biggest post-independence engineering projects on the continent.
Currently, it is involved in a big way in the mining of bauxite in Guinea, which is the country’s leading foreign exchange earner.
Unfortunately Russia, like China, shows little interest in prodding its African partners on good governance, or transparency. Their companies often also display an unsettling mercantilist-centred streak.
After the implosion of the Soviet Union, Russia largely withdrew from Africa as it underwent a long and painful process of introspection.
With President Putin eager to rebuild his country’s strength – especially economically – he is determined not to be left out of the new Big Power scramble for Africa and her resources. He has quite some catching up to do.