Dr. Katsumi Hirano is the Executive Vice President, Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), a Japanese government implementing body that handles trade relation outside Japan. Dr. Katsumi Hirano was in Nigeria for the Lagos International Trade Fair and MoU signing with Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
In this interview with Saturday Vanguard, Hirano revealed Japan’s intention to strengthen trade relation with Nigeria and other African countries, even as he advised that African continent should channel more efforts to agricultural development to create more jobs. Excerpts.
What is your experience like since you came to Nigeria, and how do you see Nigeria’s business environment?
Everyone knows that Nigeria is the biggest on the African continent in population and economy. So, why not come to your country to do business? On the other hand, Japan is a relatively domestically-oriented economy and we should open up more to catch up with globalisation.
I think trade and investment between both countries must be strengthened. That is the basic idea of JETRO as a Japanese government policy implementing body, even though we have some challenges doing business on the continent generally and also in Nigeria.
I think the challenges must be tackled by mutual efforts. When I visited Abuja, I met Honorable Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah and his high-ranking officers. We shared the same ideas and agreed that we can overcome any obstacle between us so that the Japanese private sector can come to Nigeria to do more business and also utilise your position as a gateway to the whole continent.
How would you describe Japanese business or trade relations with Africa?
I must say that our private sector has various business interests on the African continent, but I think among African people, our most well-informed presence is Toyota and other Japan-made automobiles. Outside of that industry, we have a high variety of hi-tech products and good companies, which have interest across Africa and also good technology, which I believe has potential to assist Africa’s fast development.
Now that you’re in Nigeria, which of the sectors are you looking at for possible investment?
Oil and gas is one sector Japanese companies are looking for business opportunities. On the other hand, Nigeria has the biggest domestic markets, which can accommodate various types of manufacturers, high end consumer goods, healthcare and foodstuffs. So, Japanese companies have a strong intention of participating in Nigeria’s development.
At the sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI) held in Nairobi, Kenya in August 2016, the Japanese Government pledged a $30 billion investment in Africa, how far has your government gone in implementing that pledge?
We have a free market system. So, each investor decides exclusively on how he or she wants to run business. But now that our government led by Prime Minister Abe has made the pledge, and I can say we are proceeding with the plan. A good example is the number of Japanese companies opening offices and investing in Nigeria; it is still increasing despite the economic recession for the last two and a half years, and it’s the same story in other parts of Africa.
As a business leader, how do you think Japanese companies see Nigeria and what advantages do you think the Nigerian market has over other emerging markets in Africa?
Recently, I had a meeting with the representatives of the Japanese companies in Lagos and many of them are making progress in business. However, the issue of foreign exchange and also regulation still remain a problem. But on the other hand, the reason why they stay in Lagos and continue to do business is connected to the second question.
One reason is the size of the market enjoyed by Nigeria. That is the first point, which I should raise. Talking about the business opportunities in Nigeria, the country also has endowment of national resources as well as human resources who have very high education not only in Nigeria but also overseas. I think this country’s endowment is another attractiveness to Japanese investors.
What do you think is the secret of Japanese success in science and technology?
Actually we performed at a very high economic growth rate after the Second World War. That sort of high economic growth speed was shifted to South Korea and now China. Such economic growth potential not only for Japan but also our neighbouring countries have come from technological progress.
So, that progress did not happen naturally; it was very intentional, because our government, the Korean Government and the Chinese Government put a lot of efforts in education and policy making, and the private sector enjoyed such public assistance. That kind of effort by the whole society can be expected to produce a good result in technological development.
As an expert in African affairs, which areas do you want Nigeria to improve on to drive good economic, trade and investment relations with the outside world, especially Japan?
I would like to raise one point, which I’m always thinking about, that is agriculture, especially food production. It’s very, very important to realise that agriculture can provide great help in this direction. Unfortunately, almost all African countries now suffer food trade deficit and much money is being drained from African economies to the outside world through the foodstuff situation.
So, if you’re talking about the Asian development, at first, before industrialisation, almost all East Asian countries attained food sufficiency. We have comparative advantage in labour. That is the secret for the high economic growth in the East Asian countries.
So, I have high hopes that if African countries put more efforts to food sufficiency and agricultural development, that is the easiest way to industrialise and create jobs.
The Nigerian Government is already implementing an economic growth and recovery plan, how do you evaluate this plan?
Yes, as I already mentioned, I enjoyed a discussion with your government officials and I was very impressed with their commitment to industrial diversification, enabling business environment and eradication of corruption. With your government’s policy trends and direction, the Japanese government and people would wish to support the implementation of the policy.
What is your evaluation of the Lagos International Trade Fair?
The Japan pavilion, I should say, is wonderful and I highly hope that the Nigerian people enjoyed the Japanese products being displayed. Outside the Japan Pavilion, I had a chance to visit the China Pavilion and they also had selected products. I also observed very energetic and wonderful scenes in the Lagos International Trade Fair.
Does the Japanese government have any plan for JETRO in Nigeria?
We want to strengthen trade and investment relationship between Japan and Africa. Among the countries on the African continent, let me repeat that Nigeria is the biggest country economically and by population. So, we are putting in place all facilities to promote Japanese business in