Niankoro Yeah Samake, Ambassador of the Republic of Mali to India, believes India, of late, has been proactively making inroads into the African continent, including Mali. However, he also feels despite this increased engagement, trade between the two nations remains way below its potential. In a freewheeling interaction with The Dollar Business, the Ambassador suggests ways to further boost Indo-Malian trade ties.
Ahmad Shariq Khan | July 2016 Issue | The Dollar Business
TDB: Bilateral relations between India and Mali are characterised by historical & cultural linkages, extensive economic and trade interests, and a convergence on major bilateral and international issues. How do you see the long-held relationship shaping up in the future?
Niankoro Yeah Samake (NYS): These are exciting times for Indo-Malian relationship. Right from the time when, in October 2009, the two countries signed a Protocol on Foreign Office Consultations and an agreement on Political, Economic, Scientific, Technical and Cultural Co-operation, both nations have reaped good dividends.
In recent times, India has been quite proactively making inroads into the African continent. India has never been so engaged with Africa in terms of its foreign and trade policy. We see a lot of optimism in the Modi-led government. He has been quite active on international forums and we see it as a good sign.
The recent African Summit held in New Delhi, where heads of more than 40 nations from Africa came together and had meaningful discussions, is a testimony to the fact that India and Africa are indeed serious about coming together and are exploring various opportunities in each other’s regions.
Besides trade, there are numerous opportunities that Mali offers, including in tourism. Mali is home to the mystic Timbuktu. Mansa Musa, the king of Timbuktu, is often referred to as the wealthiest person in history. He ruled the Mali Empire in the 14th century and his land was laden with lucrative natural resources, most notably gold.
In Mali, there are several places that have been classified as World Heritage Sites. Bamako is already known as the world capital of music. These are the hidden treasures that India needs to unveil to connect with Mali more closely.
TDB: Indians and persons of Indian origin play a key role in the Malian economy, employ many Malians and are among the largest taxpayers in Mali. However, despite its strong economic foundation, the relationship between the two nations has so far failed to realise its full potential. According to you, what are the reasons?
NYS: Yes, I agree. Bilateral trade between the two countries is still far below potential and there are many reasons responsible for the situation.
In March 2012, we had a military coup due to which we had instability in the country and that affected our bilateral relationships, not just with India but with all our trading partners. We know businesses cannot flourish in a hostile environment.
Following the National Assembly Elections in November 2013, I am pleased to say that we have now come out of that phase and with the persistent efforts of H. E. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the country has now become a much more promising place to invest and do business in.
Today, more companies are coming to Mali each day. The ever-increasing number of visas being issued to businessmen (headed to Mali) including from India certainly shows the growing confidence of the international community on Mali and its economy.
TDB: Economic and commercial relations between the two countries have always remained on a solid footing. So going forward, in what key areas/sectors would you like to see India using its expertise in Mali, so that the duo enjoy mutual benefits and make it a win-win proposition?
NYS: Yes, indeed, apart from traditional sectors that both nations are exploring at the moment, we believe, India also has proven expertise in many areas that can be of great help to Mali. These include infrastructure development, civil projects, telecommunications and energy (including solar energy) apart from delivery of various key services such as medical, including hospital infrastructure. Also, skill development is one area where many Malian firms wish to learn from their Indian counterparts.
Further, we believe, as Mali develops its own industries, many new opportunities will open up for foreign investors. Today, it’s a fact that despite having sizeable assets in the form of livestock, poultry, gold reserves and cotton, Mali does not have a large tannery or a hatchery, or even a gold refinery (despite Mali being the third largest producer of gold in Africa, behind South Africa and Ghana) or a major cotton processing plant.
Mali also has huge reserves of uranium, bauxite and phosphates, but again no processing units. About 70% of our population still subsists on agriculture. Hence, a plethora of opportunities also exists in the agriculture sector.
TDB: What are the major bottlenecks that Malian businesses face while dealing with their Indian counterparts?
NYS: There were bottlenecks but most of them have been removed by our current President. We believe, Indo-Malian relationship got a big boost in 2012 when we had the historic visit by former President of Mali, H. E. Amadou Toumani Touré to India.
Every country has its own style of functioning and bureaucracy. However, as a partner to India, we would like to see things gaining pace. Apart from this, we have never had any major issue dealing with Indian firms. And we also don’t see any major obstacle in near future.
TDB: Is Mali pitching for any free trade agreement (FTA) or any other preferential trade agreement with India?
NYS: Not exactly an FTA but, yes, we are in discussion with Indian counterparts on various trade topics and opportunities. One soon-to-be finalised development relates to India’s raw cotton trade. Mali is the largest producer and exporter of cotton in West Africa, and the second-largest producer in Africa, after Egypt. Whereas, India has huge requirement for raw cotton. And here lies an opportunity for Indian textile players.
Currently, India imports only 13% of raw cotton that Mali produces and the rest it sources from other countries at a much higher price. This is happening because, at the moment, we don’t have a trading arrangement with India when it comes to raw cotton. But we are changing the current system very soon.
We have a trade delegation coming from Mali next month, led by CEO of the Cotton Agency of Mali, to discuss trading opportunities with Indian counterparts and ink various trade agreements.
TDB: India is amongst the leading investors in Mali. How lucrative is Mali as an investment destination for Indian businessmen and what major incentives does Mali offer them?
NYS: Today, the Republic of Mali can be described as a politically stable country with one of the lowest crime rates in the region. This stable social and political climate is reassuring to any foreign investor, including Indian businessmen.
Further, I believe, our membership in two regional economic organisations, namely the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), enhance our position when it comes to international trade.
Though Mali is a landlocked country, we don’t consider the country’s location as a challenge but an advantage. In fact, we believe we are fortunate to have such a geographic location, as it puts us right in the middle of seven countries – this strategic location helps us expand our trade ties throughout West Africa.
Today, if a businessman opens a factory in Mali then he is not just catering to 16 million inhabitants of Mali but also to 500 million people of entire west Africa region. You can in fact export to adjacent countries with no tariffs at all.
We are determined and committed to offer a hassle-free business environment to Indian companies. In recent times, we have come up with a slew of reforms pertaining to revised Customs, labour and mining codes, restructured public finances and many corporate tax incentives, including setting up of a public-private consultation framework, and have also established a national commission for competition.
Our revised Investment Code guarantees full rights and protection for investors including non-discrimination in foreign direct investment, repatriation of funds, foreign ownership, guarantee against expropriation, dispute resolution and investment guarantee.
Furthermore, foreigners can set up companies in just 72 hours in Mali and a company can even repatriate 100% of its revenue to its country of origin. We believe these measures can go a long way in attracting investors to Mali.
TDB: Both India and Mali are characterised by a large amount of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). How do you see SME-SME association between the two countries gaining further momentum in the days to come?
NYS: We are mesmerised by the robustness and efficiency of the Indian MSME sector that contributes a lot to both domestic and international markets.
There are many success stories in the Indian MSME sector that inspire us, and in the coming times, many trade delegations are planned to bolster the SME-SME association between the two countries.
Making use of abundant raw material that our country offers in terms of metals and minerals, many Indian brands such as Mahindra & Mahindra, Bajaj, etc., are already operating factories in Mali. We would love to see more of such collaborations and JVs taking shape in future.
TDB: How do you view the ‘Make in India’ initiative? Do you have any investment planned in this initiative?
NYS: Make in India is an excellent idea to draw investment into the country. We are indeed drawing inspiration from the campaign. We also believe if we do value additions within the country, it will surely boost the Malian economy in a big way. To cite one example, currently, Mali is meeting its health equipment requirement largely through imports from China. Going forward, it’s very much on our agenda to assist domestic Malian manufacturers in producing the items within the country. As of now, no Malian investment is planned for Make in India. But yes, we are closely observing the initiative and exploring opportunities. And who knows, in near future, new avenues may be tapped into.
TDB: India’s engagement with Mali is at three levels viz. at the African Union level, Regional Economic Communities (RECs) level, and bilateral. Mali has also availed Indian assistance through TEAM-9 (Techno-Economic Approach for Africa-India Movement aimed at 9 West African States), NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) and ECOWAS Bank. Are you satisfied with the current engagement levels? And what do you expect going forward?
NYS: Yes, we are quite satisfied with the current level of engagements with India. We truly believe India has been successful in fostering a very unique relationship with African nations. We are also pleased by the deliberations at last year’s Africa Summit held in New Delhi.
Furthering this mutual agenda, many new trade visits are planned from both sides in the near future. In fact, a joint commission from India is supposed to be visiting Mali by the end of this year. We will discuss ways to further bolster bilateral trade between the two countries. India and Mali have a long way to go together – in trade, in relationship!