A farmer at work in Kenya's Mount Kenya region. Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT via Wikipedia Commons
A farmer at work in Kenya's Mount Kenya region. AGR is taking a bottom-up approach by empowering African farmers with new resources. Photo: Neil Palmer / CIAT via Wikimedia Commons

Historically, economic and diplomatic ties between the Arab Gulf region and Africa have not been particularly significant, despite the common interests between these regions of the world.

Until recently, there has simply been a lack of interest among Gulf states in investing in African operations. Fluctuating economies, political unrest, and the destabilizing effects of conflict kept many of the Gulf kingdoms from committing capital to the continent’s markets.

As a result, many key sectors of interest such as retail, tourism, and public infrastructure lay stagnant for decades and foreign direct investment (FDI) for Africa remained at a relative trickle.

About five years ago, the beginnings of change for this trend began to appear. As African economies expanded, Gulf countries from Saudi Arabia to Qatar started to look for lucrative investments on the continent.

For the first time, FDI from these nations began a markedly upward trend. Now, there is a new drive to deepen cooperation thanks to one entrepreneur, a man who is uniquely suited to build bridges between the two regions.

Zuneid Yousuf was born in Zambia and entered the business world decades ago, making his first successful ventures in textiles from a UK base of operations. In the early 1990s, he returned to Africa and founded Zumran Mining and Exploration with the goal of unleashing the potential of Zambia’s famed copper belt.

Over the years, Yousuf has molded himself into international capital’s natural-resources partner in Zambia and across Africa. A global entrepreneur with a large number of achievements in natural resources, Yousuf is currently one of Africa’s most prominent businessmen.

An interesting trait Yousuf brings to the table is his business diversity, an important quality when setting out to draw foreign investment for industries spreading across an entire continent.

In addition to his earlier ventures, Yousuf is the chairman and director of the business conglomerate MBI Group, a coalition of companies with operations in retail consumer goods, energy, agriculture, and soft drinks. 

Yousuf has developed some innovative approaches to help overcome the challenges facing Africa. African Green Resources (AGR), Yousuf’s agri-tech venture, has been at the center of attention in African business circles, due to his desire to promote economic development and increase food security.

AGR is taking a bottom-up approach by empowering local farmers with new resources. By partnering with firms around the world, including most recently US-based African Fertilizer and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP) last June, vital infrastructure such as solar farms and irrigation dams are being built. These largely unprecedented projects will ensure the viability of local crop markets and allow them to flourish on an international scale.

The success of his philanthropic initiatives in bolstering African businesses has drawn quite a bit of attention from foreign investors with eyes on Africa. Member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have placed themselves at the forefront of discovering and unlocking new opportunities on the continent.

And it is here where Yousuf’s roots in the United Arab Emirates have become important assets. Indeed, it is the UAE that spearheaded trade ties between Africa and the Gulf, largely thanks to help from entrepreneurs like Yousuf as well as its aspiration to become an international gateway for Africa.

The UAE has encouraged the entire gamut of countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – to expand their own engagement at varying intensities.

In this regard, Yousuf has been leveraging his UAE network in merging investors and financiers with up-and-coming industries to facilitate growth across Africa. This has contributed greatly to the current growth trend by granting his fellow Africans access to the Gulf’s wealth of resources.

African trading companies and multinationals are now taking advantage of Dubai’s world-class infrastructure and global reach as a springboard for accessing more distant markets. Important business groups such as Africa’s Mara Group and Atlantic Holdings have both set up their global headquarters in the UAE, citing the ease of travel, access to capital, and visa policies.

One of the most welcoming developments was the announcement of Etihad Credit Insurance (ECI) and the African Trade Insurance Agency (ATI) to strengthen the trade relations between the United Arab Emirates and Africa. Both firms will be extending insurance and financing capacities to African companies, which will ensure a high level of financial viability and stability for up-and-coming companies.

The Gulf’s investment in Africa is now going even beyond business ventures. In late March, the UAE government launched the UAE-Africa Government Experience Exchange Program, aiming to share successful experiences in government modernization.

The work models, accelerators, and management innovations that will be imparted in the program are expected to be vital in achieving both the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.   

As this trend of cooperation continues to accelerate, Yousuf’s philanthropic and entrepreneurial mindset is bringing together assets in the Gulf, and opportunities in Africa will be increasingly vital not just for the continent, but for prosperity across international lines. While MBI’s ventures are centralized in Africa, the partnerships being fostered are having and will continue to have positive impacts on fueling global growth.

Anita Haugen

Anita Haugen is an Oslo-based security adviser with a focus on Asian and MENA affairs. She works with a number of research centers and consultancy agencies in the Nordic region.