Rising Asia Journal
Rising Asia Foundation
ISSN 2583-1038

Letting India’s Soft Power do the Talking in Africa

Review by Vinod Kumar Pillai

Independent Scholar

Gurjit Singh, The Harambee Factor: India-Africa Economic and Development Partnership (New Delhi: MacMillan Education Publishers and the Indian Council of World Affairs, 2022), 454 pages, INR 2,950.

As projected, the twenty-first century may turn out to be the Asian Century, reflecting the rise of Asian business, technology, politics, and culture. In particular, the rapid growth of the Chinese and Indian economies brought the focus to Asia. But while Asia’s growth story was being lauded, the world was also turning its attention to another continent with significant potential for growth—the African continent. “The twenty-first century, labelled as the Asian century, is now also becoming an African century” (Gurjit Singh, 1).

During the twentieth century, the interest in Africa was limited to the colonial nations of Europe, the United States and Soviet Union. As Bhatia points out, during the twenty-first century, “China emerged as a top economic partner of Africa, using all possible levers—aid, loans, trade investment, diplomacy, peacekeeping and soft power—to forge new relationships and strengthen old ties with African countries. . .  Other emerging economies—India, Brazil and eventually Russia—followed suit. Yet others like Turkey, UAE, South Korea and Indonesia joined in, with a view to expanding their politico-economic cooperation with the African partners of their choice” (Bhatia, 10).[1]

Asian countries have turned their attention to Africa, particularly China that has emerged as the biggest investor, lender, and trading partner for African countries. Like China, India, with its much older connection with Africa, has now emerged as the third-largest trading partner and is emerging as a key player in the story of economic and development partnership with Africa. What is interesting is that “discerning scholars in India maintain that the growth of India’s political and economic cooperation with Africa in the past two decades was driven, partially but significantly, by the dramatic transformation of China-Africa partnership.”[2]

Although India’s engagement with Africa dates back centuries, probably millennia, scholarly books and articles that focus on the expanded relationship and developments in the twenty-first century are rare. The Harambee Factor is therefore a welcome addition to fill the gap. The author, Ambassador Gurjit Singh, was posted to Kenya for five years, he headed the Africa division in New Delhi for two years, and later served as India’s ambassador to Ethiopia for four years. He was Additional Secretary and Sherpa for the second India-Africa Summit in 2009-12. As a career diplomat with a passionate interest in Africa from his college days, he has the required experience and credentials.

Most readers would be mystified by the title The Harambee Factor, but an interesting explanation is provided in the preface where the author explains,

In Swahili, Harambee means pulling together in a cooperative spirit. It relates to team work and community bonding to achieve common aims. When working together, workmen can be heard saying ‘harambee’ loudly. The India-Africa partnership is not an altruistic event. Rather it resonates with deep feelings of togetherness and working in partnership. The word harambee evokes the equality of spirit. Some believe that the term may have an Indian etymology. The Indians who laid the original Mombasa Kisumu railway often used the terms for Hari and Ambe together as Har-Ambe when picking heavy loads or rail tracks. Hari referred to the Lord Vishnu and Ambe to the Goddess Shakti. This pronunciation of Harambe was adapted by their co-workers to become harambee and then absorbed into Swahili. And the spirit of their common effort remained embedded in the term since then. It is a Swahili and East African term now with the Indian High Commission located on Harambee Avenue in Nairobi, and the Harambee Stars being Kenya’s football team (7-8).

The book does not require any prior understanding of “the dark continent,” as the first chapter begins with an overview of the African continent and the opportunities it presents to the outside world today. We get to understand the vast continent on various parameters: the different regions, their relative significance, regional groupings, developmental organisations, foreign direct investment inflows, and trading partners, focusing on the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The author explains the importance of Agenda 2063 which “is an effort by Africa to achieve its goals within five decades, from 2013 to 2063. The future of Africa, as envisioned by its leaders, is set out in this document, and all Africa’s partners would do well to study the document and see its key transformational outcomes, goals and priorities and the flagship projects which need a higher allocation of funds” (21).

In the very next chapter, we get a detailed account of the India-Africa story from pre-historic times to the present day. The author explains how beginning with prehistoric times, when the landmasses were one, to the later period when dhow-based trade with the east coast of Africa flourished for mutual benefit, India and Africa have remained connected with each other for centuries. But when Mahatma Gandhi returned to India in 1915, the fact that he had lived in South Africa and developed his unique form of agitation, ‘satyagraha,’ brought South Africa into focus. Against this backdrop, the evolution of the India-Africa relationship has been examined from 2001 onwards, in terms of the various programs and policy measures that provided the framework, such as the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme, educational and cultural scholarships, the Focus Africa programme 2002, the Indian Development and Economic Assistance Scheme (IDEAS) 2004, Techno-Economic Approach for Africa-India Movement (TEAM 9) 2004, Pan African e-Network Project (PANEP) 2005, CII-EBI India-Africa Business Conclave 2005, India-Africa Summit Process (IAFS) 2005, followed finally by the Modi years, which saw a greater engagement with Africa and more high-level visits.

Having provided a broad overview, the author looks at specific aspects of the evolving relationship in the remaining chapters. There is some overlap/repetition as the author gets into the details that were briefly covered in the overview provided in the first two chapters. But that would be a small price to be paid for the wealth of information that is made available on various aspects of India’s engagement with Africa.

The three India-Africa summits in 2008, 2011, and 2015, and their outcomes are discussed. The author explains how these summits were effective but with numerous summits, and a summit fatigue having set in, there is “a need to reassess the form and substance of this summit system and perhaps focus on select areas, depending on strengths and requests” (90).

The various development cooperation models are discussed, such as the South-South model, the Commonwealth and Francophone models, as well as the Chinese model which is an FDI and engineering model with much financial outlay. The author concludes that “China is seen as a large provider of funds and steps in whenever African countries need something—from stadia, parliaments, roads, bridges to even constructing the building for the AU Commission. India is seen more as a soft power with PANEP, capacity-building capabilities, training, education, and the ITEC programme as its noteworthy features” (98).

The summit-based development cooperation envisaged a number of institutions being set up. These are described in detail with a review of their implementation record. So also, the role of Indian civil society organizations, business organizations, and NGOs that were brought into the summit process, is explained in detail. The contribution of academic exchanges and the promotion of specialist research as well as the lines of credit provided by India under the Indian Development and Economic Assistance Scheme (IDEAS) in 2003-04 is explained and reviewed.

Finally, the author explains why India needs to review its engagement with Africa. “India’s Africa engagement has been a successful partnership, traversing the political solidarity period and through the period seeking a better international role. This led to the last two decades of active economic engagement. In the current phase, where countries are dealing with international relations in a more transactional manner, the value of extant partnerships is often only as good as the last project, or sharing of prosperity. As India deals with a post-pandemic world, the relationship with Africa needs a review” (404). This book provides sufficient material to form the basis for such a review.

Besides offering valuable insights gained during his interactions with African leaders and policymakers, the author has also included findings from a survey of African interlocutors that provides many interesting insights on how African policymakers, business people, ambassadors, bankers, consultants, and academics view various aspects of the development cooperation.

The stated aim of the book is “to assess India’s economic and development partnership with Africa” (7). It stays focused on the stated aim and does not look at other areas like political or defence issues, and people-to-people dimension of the relationship. It is undoubtedly an excellent, serious, and well researched study packed with a lot of information and objective assessments covering all aspects of the economic and development partnership during the last twenty years. It will be invaluable for anybody interested or involved with Africa, be they policymakers, diplomats, researchers, bankers, historians, businesses, or NGOs who wish to learn about India’s economic and development partnership with Africa during the twenty-first century.

Note on the Reviewer         

Vinod Kumar Pillai is an independent scholar with interest in literary fiction, development studies, and popular science. He graduated in Agricultural Sciences, and worked for over thirty years in banking, specializing in industrial credit, training, behavioral science, and counseling. He has been a consultant trainer for over eight years, training employees in the banking and financial services sector. He delivers training, designs and develops training content, and contributes as a domain expert in developing content for e-learning and bank manuals. He has also worked for three years as a trainer at a bank training center, training employees of the bank in banking and soft skills. Besides literary fiction, development studies, popular science and training, he also devotes time to Cinema, Jyotish, podcasting, and stock photography. He is an occasional cook and lives in Hyderabad, India with his wife and son.


[1] Rajiv Bhatia, India-Africa Relations: Changing Horizons (Oxon, Routledge: 2022), 10.

[2] Ibid, 196.