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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Sowing the Seeds of Change in Africa

Aiko Doden

Aug. 10, 2016

Many countries in Africa are experiencing rapid economic growth, and Japanese companies are building lasting businesses there, geared to local needs.

More than 1 billion people live on the African continent, and that number is expected to reach about 2.5 billion by 2050. The sheer size of this consumer market has companies across the globe scrambling to carve out a share.

Japanese firms are already making their mark, relying on a proven method of tailoring goods to meet local needs.

Later this month, African leaders are gathering in Kenya for the Tokyo International Conference on African Development. Their aim is to promote sustainable growth on the continent that benefits everyone, not just a few.

NHK Senior Commentator Aiko Doden, who recently returned from a visit to the Kenyan capital, joins anchor Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: We say, "Africa" but it is actually a diverse continent of more than 50 countries, isn't it?

Doden: Yes, the reality is that Africa is a continent of both opportunities and challenges. Please take a look at this chart. Seven African countries are among the world's top 10 in terms of economic growth. Africa continues to experience population growth too, according to a UN projection.

The continent's share of the global population will be in the vicinity of 25 percent in 2050. That's why some businesses have set their sights on making headway in this emerging market.

Shibuya: We tend to think of mega projects when it comes to doing business in Africa, does this still remain to be the case?

Doden: In fact, China's presence is looming large in recent years as the major provider of landmark infrastructures as African Union HQ. But what triggers sustainable change are efforts to facilitate locally adapted schemes and enable Africans themselves to meet the needs of local markets. That's where Japanese firms are trying to find new business opportunities. This is something that I found in Nairobi.

Shibuya: Japanese Ramen in Africa?

Doden: They are instant ramen noodles, Kenyan style, about 30 cents a bag. They are made and sold by a joint venture involving a Japanese food manufacturer and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya.

There was actually an advance competing Indonesian product, but after a thorough feasibility study, this brand decided to launch 4 flavors, barbecue, chicken, tomato and masala flavors to suit the local's taste and diet. In the hope of infiltrating the market, they are approaching schools.

Shibuya: These children look excited.

Doden: The noodles are nutritious, as they are made with ingredients like whole wheat and sorghum that can be sourced locally, instead of refined flour. Procuring ingredients locally helps the local economy too. It also means that the noodles are cheaper to make.

Shibuya: Why has the company decided to approach schools?

Doden: Companies regard children as the consumers of the future. They will one day constitute a vast market. The Japanese firm is aiming to construct a factory in Kenya and export noodles from there to other East African countries in the future.

Shibuya: It is interesting that companies are making efforts to produce noodles that are of course tasty but also healthy.

Doden: Companies know that business will only become profitable and sustainable when there is a vibrant market of healthy consumers. There is an increasing number of cases in which firms, not only UN organizations and NGOs, are doing their best to address issues on the ground in Africa and make a difference at the same time as they make a profit. I went to see a project-site outside Nairobi.

Fifty minutes by car from Kenya's capital Nairobi we arrive at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

The institution was founded in 1981 with the support of the Japanese government. Many of the school's graduates are working in the field of agriculture and engineering that could hold the key to Africa's development.

At a solar-sharing system on the university premises, solar panels have been set up in a field. The idea is to share and use sunlight for both power generation and agriculture.

The project began in 2015 and the solar panels have been developed by a Japanese company. The electricity generated using them is stored in a power-storage device located on the field.

The stored electricity is used for irrigating crops. The system is at an experimental stage but the study shows that the panels create shade in the farmland, and this moderation of sunlight helps increase crop yield.

The system was designed by a Japanese architect who sought to bridge Japan and Kenya through innovation and technology.

"We now grow beans, and are exploring the possibility of growing corn and strawberries that can fetch a high price," says Izumi Sakata, president of OSA Japan.

The panels prevent the land from becoming parched, allowing cultivation even during the dry season. So now crops can be harvested 4 times a year. Expectations are high that the system will be used all over Africa.

"We hope that this system will be adapted, even though many people have shown interest in the system, we will do a lot of community outreach," said Robert Kinyua, a professor at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. "People are really happy that they can actually have solar farm without compromising on their food production."

Shibuya: This solar-sharing system is still at an experimental stage. How do they plan to improve it?

Doden: The system can be tailor-made according to the needs of each area, by increasing or decreasing the number of panels installed to adjust the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. African nations have become increasingly dependent on imported grain due to drought and other factors. For African nations to achieve further growth, it is crucial to raise agricultural productivity without putting a strain on the environment.

Shibuya: The professor was saying that this system can be adapted. What are the possibilities?

Doden: Power could be stored in batteries and distributed to areas without electricity. The World Bank says more than 60 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has no access to electricity. With electricity, medical clinics can operate at night and children can study after dark. The solar-sharing system has the potential to greatly change some people's lives.

The solar-sharing facilities are small-scale, and may not bring a drastic change to the entire African continent instantly. They are, however, an example of the ways in which Japanese skills and technology can be put to use in the field. These efforts are like seeds to be cultivated in line with the needs of each region.

They may be small, but may even have the potential to gradually transform entire societies.