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The only thing dark about Africa is our knowledge of it. So goes an oft repeated saying. With his ‘Look Africa’ policy initiative PM’s advisor on commerce, Razzak Dawood, wants to change that. Will he be successful?

‘Look Africa’policy initiative involves improving the presence of trade and commercial counsellors, increasing the number of sector-specific exhibitions in the region, and holding trade dialogues that are accompanied with trade delegations of various business sectors. The recent conference in Nairobi is pitched to be just the curtain raiser.

Mr. Dawood is pinning his hopes to Africa’s GDP growth prospects. He was recently quoted to have said that Africa’s potential is remarkable, “with staggering figures that the GDP from $2.4 trillion may go up to as high as $29tn in the years to come. We can't afford to miss this great opportunity, and now we have to reach out”.

These are lofty GDP growth estimates.Perhaps as much, and as long-term as the fifty-billion dollars plus CPEC investment inflows that Pakistan is to get over the next few decades. Never mind that only a pittance has materialised so far; in fact, declining in FY20-todate (in gross terms). But Dawood’s hopes do have some basis.

According to estimates produced by Employers’ Federation of Pakistan (EFP), Africa’s import bill grew by 14 percent in 2018 to $576 billion. Of this, according to the EFP - which is partnering with Global Trade Partnership (GTP) to bridge the gap in Pak-Africa trade - Pakistan only captures 0.24 percent.

When Mr. Dawood says that his office is aiming to double Pakistan’s trade with Africa in the next five years, it may well be possible. It will be akin to a school child getting 4 out of 100 marks in an exam after five years of hard work, double from the pupil’s current scorecard of 2 out of 100 today. Not sure whether the pupil shall be promoted with such great jump in test scores!

The vision and direction of commerce advisor are spot on. But with apologies to the 80s’ rock band Toto, blessed may be the rains down in Africa, it’s ‘gonna take some time to do the things we never had’. Mr. Dawood can do only do so much. When exports fall, commerce gets the flak. But commerce’s is a thankless job whose success depends on the performance of a long list of federal and provincial departments on which it doesn’t have a lot of influence, if at all.

PTI’s administration isn’t the first one to flag the need for new products and new markets. These talks have been making rounds since at least the days when Dr Shamshad Akhtar was the governor central bank. If trade is like water, then why haven’t Pakistanis ventured into the African market despite repeated reminders from policy circles.

Pakistanis don’t seem to identify Africa as a market.If government bodies have been slacking, then so has been the private sector, happily vying for US and EU markets instead. Chambers and associations have held seminars and press conferences on ease of doing business, taxation, GSP+ and other topics that are important to them.But rarely, if not never, have they held moots on trade with Africa. Au contraire, there are several examples of industry associations from foreign countries pooling in money to explore the export prospects for their goods in Pakistan.

This begs the question whether Pakistani producers don’t have exportable surplus, or whether they don’t find African market too attractive, or are they just too lazy?  Or is it - perhaps - they cannot compete with their rivals in African market, given poor economies of scale and uncompetitive pricing. Afterall,Pakistan has managed to fail in its potential to significantly tap the Afghan market, be it the meat imports (which comes from Brazil), or cement (where significant share was lost to Iran).

A time-tested truth in trade is that it thrives on historical relations and brand image of the country. In Africa, the French, Dutch and other Europeans have an advantage over many exporting countries because many Africans know different European languages due to theircolonial past.Many Africans have also migrated to EU and US, which also offers the comfort of affiliation on both sides of trade.

China was a relatively new entrant to Africa.But when you have as much money as China has, then you can even buy love, let alone trade.Compared to Pakistan,Indian exports to African countries are also noticeably higher.But for more than two decades,Indian universities have been producing research on how to develop ‘Brand India’ in Africa and analyzing India’s foreign and economic relations with Africa at a time when Pakistan had not even set up academic centers focused on its all-weather friend, China.

And Pakistan? We are still to build foreign relations with Africa, which implies trade relations are quite some miles ahead, perhaps as far as Delhi. But since there is heightened societal pressure to be optimistic and paint a positive picture,here is to Pakistan’s exporters: grow restless, and hurry boys, Africa, she’s waiting for you.