Tanzania is an important Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) hub in Africa. It signed a BRI cooperation memorandum with China in 2018. Bilateral exchanges have been on the rise since then.
On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the launch of the initiative, ChinAfrica sat down with Mbelwa Kairuki, Tanzanian ambassador to China, to hear his insights on the BRI, especially the changes brought by the BRI to the local people’s lives. Edited excerpts of the interview follow:
ChinAfrica: How did you get to really understand the value of the BRI for you? And what is the current understanding about the role it plays?
Mbelwa Kairuki: Tanzania signed a memorandum of cooperation with China to implement the BRI, during my time as ambassador to China, in 2018. I’ve since witnessed increasing cooperation in different areas between our two sides.
The BRI is a very successful international cooperation platform as it brings opportunities for us to cooperate not only with China, but also with other countries that are a party to this great initiative. There are many achievements that have been recorded.
Among all those fields, there is a tremendous achievement in trade. I wouldn’t even go as far as 10 years back. In 2018, when we signed the agreement, the volume of trade between Tanzania and China was somewhere between $3.8 billion and $4 billion. In 2022, the volume of trade was $8.3 billion, more than doubled.
What does this mean? Look at the impact that this has made on the common people. Thanks to the BRI and China’s readiness to open the market, the women farmers in Mtwara and Lindi, which are in south Tanzania, have a stable market for their cashews. The farmers in Ruvuma have assured markets for soybeans and avocados. The guys engaged in mining can sell their minerals in China. So, the market opportunity directly impacts the common people. Eventually, when people have an assured market, their lives improve with the income.
What specific tangible results can be attributed to the collaborative projects between China and Tanzania, such as the Julius Nyerere Hydropower Station and the Dar es Salaam Port?
In the last 10 years, we have witnessed tremendous achievement in infrastructure cooperation. Chinese enterprises have played an important role in our infrastructure development. We have upgraded the Port of Dar es Salaam, and it was done by the Chinese companies. We have upgraded the Mtwara and Tanga ports through Chinese enterprises. We have refurbished the old metre gauge central railway line. It was done by the Chinese, who are also helping to build a brand-new standard gauge railway line in phases.
These companies bring in technology, and also give us value-for-money services because of the kind of work that they’re doing. If we used other options, we would be paying more to realise such projects, which means we would have been able to do less with the limited resources we had. This cooperation has enabled us to achieve what would have taken us more years to achieve. If the roads and bridges are built, the movement of people becomes easy. My grandmother in Bukoba can grow coffee or vanilla or anything and bring to the market in Mwanza easily because the infrastructure is there.
Another thing to emphasise with regard to infrastructure is the fact that none of these projects I have mentioned that have happened in this 10-year period of the BRI were financed by the Chinese banks. All of them were funded by the government of Tanzania through our own sources or through loans from other financial institutions. I’m emphasising this because there is a notion that the BRI is a trap. The truth is, many countries, Tanzania included, have implemented projects using their own funds, using Chinese enterprises and Chinese technology. They provide us value-for-money services, and we are happy with it. The notion of “debt trap” is not correct as far as Tanzania is concerned. We think our cooperation with China in infrastructure has been beneficial.
Can we say that the narrative of “debt trap” has some hidden motives?
Definitely. There is a hidden motive. And for me, I’m not concerned with whoever is pushing that agenda. My concern is, for us who are benefitting from our cooperation with China, if we start to doubt our cooperation and think there could be truth in it, that is where the problem is. If you look at the borrowing by most of these African countries, China is not number one, number two or even number three lender. Most of these countries have debts from other financial institutions and other countries, and nobody talks about those. We only talk about China. But the Chinese are different from others in that you can see there’s a road, there is a bridge. There are tangible changes, which make a difference in people’s lives.
You may argue in some cases that the project is overpriced, but overpriced as compared to what? Chinese companies compete for projects. I will give you an example. Once Tanzania was a beneficiary of the US’ Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC). The US committed a substantial amount of money to support development of their bilateral partners. They gave us, I think, over $500 million to invest in infrastructure development in Tanzania. And you know what? Through MCC, the contractors were selected on a competitive basis and almost 50 percent of the projects were awarded to Chinese companies, and it was Americans overseeing this process.
In Africa and in Tanzania, there are places where a woman has to walk for 50 km to find the nearest health centre. Now, if the country borrows to build a health centre closer to this woman, would that be something wrong?
How have these infrastructure projects improved the lives of Tanzanian citizens and contributed to the country’s journey towards becoming a middle-income nation?
Indeed, China has built roads, railways, ports … I can give the example of the Port of Dar es Salaam. Before the renovation and upgrading, it used to take a month for a ship to reach some places. This had an impact not only on Tanzania but on the rest of the region. The upgrading has enabled port efficiency. A farmer selling dry cassava, prior to the modernisation of the port, was earning very little because the buyers were factoring in the cost of the port and the shipment. But now with the upgraded port and improved efficiency, the cost of shipment has gone down, and that means the buyer of dry cassava can add a little bit in terms of the price per kilogramme to the farmer, so the farmer benefits directly. This is one example. The roads that have been built make it easier now for a farmer to take products to the market.
Of course, through our cooperation with China, we encourage our people to partner with the Chinese to invest in agro-processing, fish processing, mining … China has plenty of simple technologies to add value. A farmer in Singida who’s growing sunflower seeds shouldn’t be trading sunflower seeds. There are machines that cost less than $20, which would process the sunflower seeds into crude oil. Then you get a better price. If we add value to the sunflower seeds, to sesame seeds, to different kinds of seeds within the country, we will be creating jobs and that will benefit our people.
In what ways has the BRI facilitated educational and cultural exchanges between China and Tanzania, and what notable outcomes have emerged from these exchanges?
As I mentioned earlier on, we’ve benefitted a lot. In the last four years, more than 5,000 Tanzanians have undergone short-term training in different areas in China despite COVID-19. More than 725 received scholarships to pursue master’s and Ph.D. degrees in different fields. These people, after getting the education, went back home and are now contributing to our national development. It has been very beneficial.
Now that China has opened up the borders, I see an increased number of people coming back to study. So, the BRI has been beneficial in the area of people-to-people exchanges, particularly in the area of education.
What challenges were encountered during the implementation of these collaborative projects, and how were they overcome to ensure successful outcomes?
Definitely, challenges are there. Some are related to the Chinese side. Some are related to our side. But the thing is, we do have a mechanism to address the challenges, and we do it through consultations, through exchange between our two sides. And we are guided by the four principles that President Xi put forward in 2013 – sincerity, affinity, real results and good faith. We have not reached a point where misunderstandings could not be solved.
How has the partnership between Tanzania and China evolved over time, and what future prospects for collaboration and development are envisioned?
First of all, let me say the future is bright, with plenty of opportunities for us to cooperate. And what we need is to take stock of the achievements that we have recorded, the challenges that we’ve faced and what needs to be done.
The beauty of it all is the fact that we do have platforms to guide our cooperation. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) is a very important mechanism for cooperation. And FOCAC is evolving. It depends on the situation of the day. In 2018, our biggest challenge was trade. Africa was not selling enough, and the little that we were selling was mineral resources, oil and so on. That’s why China came up with the initiative to establish the China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo (CAETE). The idea behind CAETE is to give opportunity for Africans to showcase what they have so that the Chinese may have understanding and they may buy.
Then we realised we needed to also focus on cooperation in science and technology. I think we have not given much weight to our cooperation in science and technology. And actually, the bottlenecks in our trade could be removed through cooperation in science and technology. We are selling little to China because we are producing little. Now, producing little can’t be solved by showcasing the little we have. It can be solved by cooperating in the area of science and technology to produce more.