Interview: Ambassador Mahesh Sachdev on India-Africa Engagements

Disclaimer: This interview is the product of Dr. Modi and Dr. Venkatachalam’s work and the IUKDPF does not necessarily endorse any of the views expressed in this interview.

Ambassador Sachdev with his book “Nigeria: A Business Manual”, now in its second edition

Dr. Renu Modi (Professor and Director, Centre for African Studies, University of Mumbai), Dr. Meera Venkatachalam ( Post -Doctoral Research Fellow, Centre for African Studies, University of Mumbai) and Prof. Dan Banik (Professor and Director, Oslo SDG Initiative, University of Oslo) interview Ambassador Mahesh K. Sachdev, Indian Ambassador to Algeria (1999-2001) and Indian High Commissioner to Nigeria (2008 – 2013). Ambassador Sachdev has a 35-year long diplomatic career and considerable experience in dealing with international situations in Asian, Middle Eastern, African and European contexts. He retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2013 and is currently President of Eco-Diplomacy and Strategies – a consultancy based in New Delhi; author of Business Manuals on Nigeria and the UAE; and Independent Director on the Board of an Indian Group focused on West Africa.

“Human interactions are an indispensable part of a diplomat’s journey in a country; it is not merely restricted to figures and geopolitics/geo-economics. The human angle often gets neglected and that is where Indian diplomacy is crafting a niche for itself”

Ambassador Mahesh Sachdeva

RM: While you served in Africa, what is the sense you get about how do the Africans perceive India and our countries development engagement with them?

MS: On the whole, the engagement is positive. They find us relevant to their institutions and their developmental experience. They also find Indians to be more familiar than most other foreigners because we empathize with their culture. There is also a certain affinity, thanks to their exposure to Indian films and our shared religious values – including Christianity and Islam.

MV: How do you think that India’s modalities of engaging with Africa are different from that of China?

MS: Both India and China have their respective vectors. However, India’s engagement is more natural and less politically motivated. Indians have been in Africa for centuries – particularly in East Africa. There have been historical connections and people-to-people contacts for centuries, such as between India-Kenya and India-Tanzania. Both India and several African countries such as Nigeria were under British colonialism; there is familiarity with the English language and the Indianisation of African bureaucracy. I can give you a small example of this: we all know that in India, ‘420’ is an abbreviation for cheating because it is the number of the provision in the Indian criminal law which deals with cases of cheating. Interestingly, in Nigerian law, the provision for such crimes is 421, which is just one number ahead of India’s penal system. This is because the British established Nigerian criminal law after Indian criminal law. These are small but significant similarities that help contextualize the historical connection between the two regions.

I would like to expand this question further. I think the institutions that they are trying to establish themselves in Africa are often modelled on India––rather than anywhere else––because of India’s multiplicity of ethnic groups, languages, religions, a socio-economic development that is relevant to them, and the need for including diversity. The scale on which we operate in India and the method that we have evolved in our economic development is quite similar to Africa. For example, when it comes to setting up a tailoring unit, the Chinese model of having 10,000 seamstresses working under the same shed would not be relevant to Africa. This is partly because of insufficient power needed for so many tailoring units to operate under one shed, amongst other technical and logistic difficulties. Thus, a diffused model, such as practised in India – wherein work is outsourced to families or other groups – would be more relevant to the African context. Similarly, if you were to train the plumbers or the IT workers, the model utilized in the United States would not be relevant in Africa because in the US, and much of Western Europe, these professions are often unionized and numbers kept below the demand to ensure higher wages. However, these models don’t work in Africa because there is a need to create jobs that can come only through the Indian model – i.e., through Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) etc. Hence, there are similar situations in the two regions.

Furthermore, much of the disease burden that Africa faces is also similar to India. When I was posted in Brussels, my three-year-old child was unwell. My wife, who is a doctor, diagnosed based on symptoms as malaria but the Belgian paediatrician she took him to, called for several tests because he had never seen a case of malaria in his career. The western world has thus focused more on lifestyle diseases whereas India and Africa are still jostling with maladies of other kinds. This is what makes us similar. No wonder India is the largest supplier of pharmaceuticals to Nigeria and several other African countries. Lastly, and most significantly, Africans trust Indians.

MV: While we are speaking of pharmaceuticals, could you enlighten us about India’s pharmaceutical presence in Nigeria. Recently, I read that there was an issue of counterfeit drugs in Nigeria. How do you think they entered the market? What were the challenges faced by the Nigerian pharmaceutical sector and what is the current scenario?

MS: I think we are doing quite well. The current annual pharma exports from India to Nigeria are around US$ 440 million, and the figure is slightly higher for South Africa. Overall, Africa directly or indirectly receives nearly three billion dollar worth of medicines from India. This is excluding Indian companies manufacturing medicines all over Africa. In Nigeria alone, there are over 30 Indian pharmaceutical companies, either through Indian investments or joint ventures. The presence of Indian companies marketing Indian pharmaceuticals contributes greatly to Nigeria’s pharmaceutical industry.

The Indian diaspora also plays a role in this regard. Nigeria’s first multi-speciality hospital- the Primus Super Specialty Hospital, was established by an Indian health company. These are some of India’s many achievements in the pharmaceutical industry in Nigeria. However, counterfeit drugs are a constant problem in Africa, partly due to lax regulatory regimes, lack of deterrence, inadequate border control/customs issues and infrequent quality checks. There is also some insinuation that generic drugs are fake, which is incorrect. India is the world’s biggest manufacturer of generic drugs which are quite popular because they being cheaper are more affordable. The United States is the biggest market for generic drugs and there seems to be no talk there about these drugs being substandard or fake. In Africa, however, this insinuation persists. India often gets branded as bringing in substandard generic drugs into the African market, although there is no evidence to back this claim. I think this is nothing but motivated propaganda. If you remember, when the CIPLA AIDS vaccine – also known as the ‘triple cocktail’– was introduced in the year 2000, it was priced at $1 a day per patient of $360 per year whereas the annual dose of the western medicines was over US$10,000. Thus, instead of US$ 10,000 per patient, which was unaffordable, Indians were supplying generic medicines of the same kind at US $360. I think the propaganda evolved since then but now it seems to have died down.

MV: Do we also have a presence of Indian ayurvedic and alternative medicines in Nigeria?

MS: In a different way, yes. Africa has its own herbal domains. Quite possibly some raw material for Indian Ayurveda could be sourced from Africa. However, Indian Ayurvedic formulations going to Africa would probably cater more to the Indian diaspora on the continent and not to Africans in general.

RM: In the post-Covid context, we have seen an increase in teleconsultation and telemedicine interactions, which have resurfaced as alternative ways to go forward in health. This raises our interest to know – what was the response to the Pan Africa e-network project (PAENP) in Africa while you were there? Tell us about its operations, functionality, advantages and challenges, if any?

MS: I would like to dissect this question into two parts. The Pan Africa e-network project (PAENP) has evolved since I left in November 2013. It is no longer satellite-based, as it was during my time. Now, it is more internet/ broadband-based and has been renamed as e-Arogyabharti and e-Vidyabharti. There are two different domains that we currently cater to – telemedicine/ teleconsultation and education (short and long courses). The Tele-education aspect has been successful. Several African countries have now signed tele-education Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs). Short-term as well as long-term courses are offered by India. The long-term courses have an exam whereas the short-term courses simply provide certifications on various skills acquired.

In the post-Covid scenario, I think India’s pharmaceutical industry has done well so far, especially given the challenges of medical kits, diagnostic equipment, sanitisers and other requirements that are needed to combat Covid. We are now gearing towards vaccines. India is already supplying vaccines to its neighbours as a gesture of solidarity. Vaccines are also being given as a grant or ordered commercially by various countries like Brazil and South Africa, among others. Thus, we have begun a new chapter in this domain and I believe that this cooperation will go a very long way in the future. I would also like to direct attention to the medical tourism industry in the context of COVID. There has been a lot of activity on the training of the medical professionals and setting up of special units at various African hospitals, etc. However, at the moment, I think India needs to cope up with its own domestic challenges in this regard.

RM: What is the modality of Indian investments in the Nigerian health sector, especially with respect to the pharma companies you spoke about? Is it restricted to the private sector, PPP schemes, or are they operational through government funding?

MS: I think Nigeria is a mixed economy when it comes to the health sector. It has a large public sector and an additional tertiary health care sector. At the same time, the medical extension into the grassroots (i.e., villages, smaller communities etc.) is driven by the public sector. However, there is increasing private sector involvement in this domain too. Doctors and medical professionals themselves are setting up clinics, dispensaries, hospitals and specialized units.

Furthermore, there has recently been some foreign involvement in this aspect, sometimes through Nigerian immigrants abroad. Nigeria has about 10,000 doctors in the USA alone. A majority number of them are now trying to come back to their home country to set up hospitals and tertiary care units. These are very much needed, particularly in the more affluent areas in cities such as Lagos. There is also plenty of medical tourism from Nigeria to India. For example, when I left as High Commissioner in 2013, nearly half of the 40,000 visas issued to Nigerians were related to medical treatment in India. This is indicative of how big and sought after the Indian medical tourism industry is.

RM: What do you think are the sunshine sectors for India-Africa business relations? Secondly, how would you say India can gain better traction in Africa?

MS: I think these questions are subject to very long discourses. I would say that we are a unique partner to Africa. Our strength lies in having both political and economic institutions in the region, and make these run optimally. Very often, foreign involvement in institution building in a third world country comes up against strong resistance. Foreign institutions are seen as politically motivated, or as transformational in a particular direction – such that the mentor gains an advantage out of them. However, India is more trusted in Africa. Surely, some agnostics would like to suspect India’s motives, but most Africans believe that the Indian model of institution-building – both political and economic – is relevant to them. This is where India’s strength lies in developing its sunshine industries/sectors.

I think Information Technology (IT) is a sector that greatly interests Africa because it has allowed India to leapfrog from limited infrastructure to be an exporter of IT products – of nearly US$ 200 billion per year. The IT industry has isolated itself from the conundrum of imperfect infrastructure. I think Africa has a similar story in the making and they would also like to leapfrog into this domain. The IT industry could help Africa recover from its infrastructural deficit. I believe that with the Indian IT model, the sectors such as health, education and e-governance could be streamlined in Africa. This could be a very successful showcase of the Indo-African linkages.

A special challenge for India would be to not confine itself to English-speaking Africa but to penetrate deeper into the non-English speaking areas of Africa – i.e., French, Spanish, and Portuguese speaking Africa. These parts have both requirements as well as opportunities in store for India. It will also be interesting to have trilateral connections in this regard. For example, the back-office for French-speaking Europe or Canada –– which cannot be operated from India because not many in India are familiar with the French language –– could be based in Chad, Benin or Cameroon. Angola, for instance, can service Portuguese-speaking Latin America or Spanish-speaking Central America. I believe these are exciting possibilities for the future.

I would also like to focus on the issue of connectivity. Indian presence in Africa is often stifled due to “triple dis-connectivity”. Firstly, the banking sector – there are hardly any Indian banks in Africa that raise the transactional costs of financial services. Air connectivity and maritime connectivity are two more conundrums. For example, if you want to fly from India to Africa, you have to pass through hubs like Dubai, Addis Ababa or Europe. In the Covid scenario, this poses an even more serious challenge. Maritime trade with Africa (export wise) becomes more expensive because the containers have to go through hubs such as Dubai or Singapore, and for North Africa through Marseille or Rotterdam. Very often, the containers with cargo from India to Sub-Saharan Africa have to also transit through Johannesburg. These three separate dis-connectivities make our financial transactions, people-to-people contacts, and commodity trade more challenging, and raises costs manifold. Hence, this is where I think India needs to put in more work if we want to further our presence to make it more meaningful and competitive.


DB: I would like to touch upon your comment about how India has traditionally concentrated in the English speaking parts of Africa. In recent years, there has been a phenomenal rise in terms of opening embassies in West Africa, French and Portuguese speaking Africa etc. Could you reflect a bit on your time in Africa until 2013 and how you see it as similar or different to the current scenario? There appears to be a huge spike in interest in India and Africa’s suddenly seems to be extremely important to Indian foreign policy establishments. Was this always the case or is this a recent change?

MS: I think this is a very interesting question. I think there has been an organic shift in India’s interest in Africa. This is nothing dramatic. As somebody who operated in the front trenches of this conflict, if I can call it a conflict, we thought that Africa was not being leveraged enough by our potential stakeholders. There were challenges related to connectivity as I mentioned before, in addition to visa-related challenges and shortage of missions etc. Politically, barring grand gestures such as the India Africa Forum Summits (IAFSs), we found that we were not being optimized in Delhi. Then there is the ongoing debate on whether India should engage with Africa on a bilateral basis or through the AU.

Furthermore, we often fail to connect the dots when it comes to aid and its sustainability. This is a general problem throughout Africa concerning economic assistance, which is very often piecemeal. However, when it comes to the subsequent phases of running a foreign aided plant, the raw material and facilitators are often missing. For example, during my time in Chad, we had a project to create a spinning mill, the country’s largest foreign industrial aided project. It was inaugurated by the Chadian president, H.E Mr Idriss Deby and me with great fanfare. Chad is a cotton producing country and it was quite impressive to see automated shuttles spinning yarn. But the challenge came when we had to convert the yarn to textiles. There was very little thought given to how the yarn would be woven into textiles and then into garments which reduced the potential gains from the project considerably.

DB: Going back to what you said about the African Union and channelling funds through larger agencies, could you elaborate on how old the Indian multilateral engagements are? Should India focus more on bilateral or multilateral engagement? Also, how relevant/important do you think are the India Africa Forum Summits (IAFS)?

MS: Summits are very useful in bringing Indian leadership together with the African leaders. They showcase India as well as African aspirations and allow the two to be intertwined. The political synergy between the two sides also gets highlighted. A lot of work is completed before the summits take place because summits have to be successful, showcase certain achievements and commit certain resources for the future. At the same time, I also believe that the overarching growth in bilateral relations is often beyond summit specifics. Students need to be involved, medical tourism should take place; institutions need to be built etc., not just during or after summits, but they need to follow their own momentum.

Both Africa and India also have private sectors, vibrant non-political players, philanthropic institutions, socio-economic developers, think-tanks etc. which play a great role in this regard too. A Summit cannot prescribe everything.

Multilaterally speaking, I think there are several models under consideration, such as India-Japan, India-UAE, and India-US have been engaging the idea of collaborating in Africa. However, before this can be achieved, a comprehensive framework needs to be built. This includes a certain minimum understanding between the three or four sides – India and Japan need to agree on funding, manpower, spinoffs from Joint Venture (JVs) etc. The resources, funding, manpower and projects etc. are often committed in anticipation of future gains; thus these need to be discussed in details a priori.

DB: What was your experience like being an Indian diplomat in Africa? I’m thinking about two sets of issues – firstly, what is it that African policymakers want/expect from India? Are their expectations specific to India’s strengths in IT and health? Secondly, what have your interactions with the Indian diaspora in Nigeria been like and whether they shape your advice to New Delhi?

MS: There are two aspects to what Africa wants from India. The first aspect is the acceptability of the relevance of our developmental experience to them. Most Africans acknowledge the relevance of India’s achievements in several socio-economic domains, such as eradication of polio, self-sufficiency in pharmaceutical and foodstuff, good governance and politico-economic institutions, an efficient skilling system, better power supply, etc. India – being a fellow developing country – is not perfect, but our experience could be a relevant pathway for Africa. This is increasingly accepted and sought after.

The second aspect is the sheer complementarities between the two regions. Africans realize that India has a large market for everything – commodities, agricultural goods including ginger and cotton etc. Thus, India is an increasingly relevant market for Africa. In the IAFS II, we provided Duty-Free Tariff Preference (DFTP) access to Africa’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) for their exports to India. There are also other areas where Africans find us relevant. Direct trade is one of those areas. However, direct trade between India and Africa is very often found to be lacking. For example, Indian motorcycles and garments are very popular in Chad, but they mainly come via Dubai, raising their costs. I once met an African gentleman at the Addis Ababa airport. He introduced himself to me in Hindi which took me by surprise. He explained that he was from Chad and recognized me from a Hindi language course I had inaugurated in N’Djamena, through which he had received a scholarship to learn the Hindi language in India. He told me that he had since become an importer of Indian garment and was just returned from Mumbai and was bringing an order of garments with him. He profited by leveraging the 30% cost advantage in bringing the garments directly from India when compared to getting them through Dubai. These are the human facets that I think need to be leveraged.

There are two types of Indian diasporas in Africa. One is the long term residents, who left India when it was still a colony. A lot of non-Muslim Sindhis went to Africa after the partition of India in 1947 as they already had relatives there. That is how the Sindhi community in Africa was born. Gujaratis have also lived in the east and southern Africa for a long time. Mahatma Gandhi’s stay in South Africa for 21 years was spurred by the presence of Gujaratis there. Now, these people and their connections with India are mostly based on culture or religion, and not through political or patriotic commitments. Such Indian diaspora is well integrated into African society and economy and owns economic and familial assets. Then, you have a new generation of Indian diaspora in Africa who are professionals – such as engineers, chartered accountant, academics, doctors etc. They come for employment either through India companies or have been hired by African or multinational companies. They have their specifics which put them on a different footing from the Indian diaspora. This kind of diaspora is not planning to stay there permanently. This makes the second type of Indian diaspora closer to the Indian High Commission and India. They know that they are not there forever and they are more connected with India. Concerning the first diaspora category, there is often a smug feeling that they were lucky to leave India in good time – mostly in the 1940s and early 50s. If they had stayed they would not have done as well as they have done in Africa. There are also genuflections of the media, highlighting open democratic aspects of the Indian society – of the chaos and socio-political difficulties. These also help reinforce the feeling that they are lucky to have relocated to Africa. Moreover, their orientation is often towards the West. For instance, when Idi Amin threw Indians out of Uganda, most of them did not go back to India but to the UK.

In 2008, when I went to Nigeria, I had a plan to use India diaspora as a bridge between Indians and Nigerians. But in a few weeks, I realized how different things were. For instance, in my introductory meeting with a prominent well-established Indian businessman, I found him very passionate about the local situation and said to me “Excellency, you don’t realize what they have done to our country”. I was taken aback and asked what he meant. He said, “Not to us, but to our country: Nigeria”. This was indicative of the kind of rooting that many of them have. I attempted to show them that there were advantages that they could reap by linking India with Nigeria – in terms of investments, transfer of technology, manpower etc. It became my mission to persuade Indians that India today is not the same country and economy as it was when they or their forefathers left, over 70 years ago and it could be relevant for them in terms of their current context of activities in Nigeria or elsewhere. It became a full-fledged objective and I devised something unique to achieve it – a weekly newsletter. It was a one-pager, called IndiaPage that was emailed to more than a thousand people every Monday morning. It showcased one aspect of India which was topically relevant to what had happened to Nigeria during the last week. So, if there was some talk about the Railway line being resuscitated, I would write about the Indian railways. If there was a dearth of pharmaceuticals due to meningitis, I would talk about the Indian pharmaceutical industry and so on. The idea was to say that India is relevant and that it had something to offer. These 1000-odd emails went out every week and were further distributed by various Indian associations among their members. This exercise in soft power became quite popular and played a significant role in moulding the perception of India among the Indian diaspora in Nigeria. After my retirement, I continued this work through my book to introduce the Indians to the opportunities that await them in Nigeria.

Let me end by giving you an example of the lack of actionable information on Africa. While in India on holiday, I learnt that an Indian billionaire had bought three cosmetic companies in Lagos for about $85 million. He invited me over lunch in Delhi. One of the first questions I asked him was which cosmetics did he plan to introduce through these three Nigerian companies. He replied that he had cosmetic companies in South Africa and their male hair dyes were quite popular. Therefore, he was planning to introduce the same product in Nigeria as well. I doubted if this cosmetic product would be suitable for the Nigerian market. He was taken aback and asked me why. I said that wasbecause an average Nigerian male’s idea of sartorial perfection was to shave his head every Sunday before going to church. As he had never been to Nigeria, he was prone to this strategic error. The story goes to underline the importance of getting to know first-hand the countries and markets in Africa before strategising.