Russia Enters the Race for Africa's Riches

Late on a Friday night at the Simba Saloon in downtown Nairobi, music by the Kenyan pop sensation the Boomba Clan is playing, and the ties are coming off. At the bar, banker types in expensive suits swap news of the latest bank IPOs and mineral concessions, the must-have gossip in Africa's biggest boomtown. Some of the conversations are in English. Some are in Chinese. And increasingly, many of them are in Russian, as Moscow begins to give both the West and Beijing a run for their money in the race for Africa's riches.

Today, emerging-market giants are fighting for oil, gas and metal ore in Africa as energetically as 19th-century European colonialists grabbed land on the continent. Recently, the Chinese have been the most aggressive, with more than 700 companies active in 50 countries, according to Standard Bank of South Africa. China is now Africa's second largest aid donor and trading partner, behind the United States, with trade up fourfold to $40 billion since 2000. But Russia, the second most active emerging-market power in the area, is gaining. While trade with Africa is only $3 billion a year (up threefold since 2000), Russian companies flush with cash have sunk over $5 billion into buying up African assets since 2000— and that's not counting $3.5 billion of oil exploration deals that will come online before the end of the decade. China, meanwhile, has put $6.64 billion into Africa over the same period, a large part of it through the China Development Bank—but much of that money has been sunk into infrastructure projects like telecommunications, electric power, water conservancy, transportation, agriculture more properly described as development aid. Pushed by the profit motive, and by a Kremlin eager to build economic empires, Russian businessmen are heading south. Africa, like Russia in the early 1990s, is full of basket-case economies with great mineral wealth—and the Russians reckon they know how to deal with those conditions.

Russia has strongly encouraged its companies to buy assets around the world because it suits President Vladimir Putin's philosophy of restoring his country's international position. Recent energy deals in Algeria have gone hand in hand with $4 billion in arms sales from Moscow. Russian businesses interested in South Africa have gotten a boost from a deal Putin made with President Thabo Mbeki to expand nuclear cooperation. Last September Putin made a whistle-stop tour of Africa, with several top Russian oligarchs in tow—including Viktor Vekselberg, who pledged to invest $2 billion in metal and mining projects in Africa, adding to holdings that include vast Kalahari manganese reserves he has owned since 2004. "I want to see Russia regaining its close partnership with Africa," Putin said, waxing lyrical about Soviet influence on the continent.

While the Chinese are staking ground in Africa mainly to power their burgeoning cities and manufacturing sector, Russians see the deals differently. Russia is the world's largest energy exporter, and has plenty of its own metals and minerals. But rich Russian companies want to extend their global reach while they have the money, and with oil topping $80 a barrel in recent weeks, the time is now. There's another motive too, analysts say: moving empires beyond the reach of the Kremlin serves as insurance against future political changes in Russia.

Over the last three years, four top Russian metal companies—Norilsk Nickel, Rusal, Renova and Alrosa—have invested more than $5 billion in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Russian oil giants Lukoil, Rosneft and Stroytransgaz have signed major exploration deals in Algeria, Nigeria, Angola and Egypt worth more than $3 billion. Earlier this year, Lukoil snapped up 63 percent of a field off the Ivory Coast in a production-sharing agreement with the Nigerian owners. That came shortly after a $2.2 billion Chinese deal in the same area.

While the Chinese are focused almost solely on buying commodities, the Russians have that in mind and more. Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to hit 6.7 percent this year, and the region's debt burden has fallen from 80 percent of GDP a decade ago to about 30 percent. Economic reform is gaining momentum in places like Zambia and Kenya, and countries like South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria now boast a growing consumer class. The Russians see that, and are fast expanding from oil into financial services, telecommunications and retail. "Africa is ready for the kind of huge growth we saw in the former Soviet Union—from retail to telecoms to manufacturing," says Roland Nash, a strategist at the Moscow-based investment firm Renaissance Capital. "It just needs an injection of capital and expertise."

Russian banks, which have learned at home how to navigate a treacherous market, are fast outpacing Western private equity investors such as the Washington-based Emerging Capital Partners and even South African hedge funds. It's a Russian investment house, Renaissance Capital, that is pioneering services that will soon allow billions of dollars in outside money to be channeled into sub-Saharan African businesses (ex-South Africa). Last year Renaissance organized the biggest IPO in African history—a $350 million sale of stock in Access Bank of Nigeria, which pushed the bank's value to $2 billion. And a new Africa Fund launched by Renaissance this month is expected to reach its $1 billion cap by spring—making it as large as the total of five funds put together since 2000 by Emerging Capital Partners, previously the largest private equity investors. "We're at the beginning of a major transition," says Steven Jennings, CEO of Renaissance. "We've been in Russia and the CIS since 1992—we know about early-stage capital markets. There is a different culture in Africa, of course—but the challenges of imperfect legal systems and so on are the same."

It's not clear that Russia and China will be better or worse for Africa than the earlier Western arrivals turned out to be. South Africa has been a model for sustainable growth in the region, but South African corporations eager to expand throughout the continent may be winnowed out by Chinese or Russians who can pay cash for practically any asset they fancy. China in particular is building railways and roads, which conveniently run mainly to mining areas. What's more, critics say soft loans could lead to a new cycle of dependency—this time tying African nations to the purse strings of emerging-market powers

. "Even interest-free loans need to be repaid," says Sanusha Naidu of the Centre for Chinese Studies at South Africa's Stellenbosch University. "And African governments, which finally have money to use following the writing off of their debt by Western donors, might find themselves reburdened."

Local leaders reply that they've been receiving Western aid and following Western business and development models for decades without seeing returns. "They feel that countries such as Russia, China, India and Brazil can bring something new to the table," says Naidu. Certainly they can bring plenty of cash. As the ties come off on the dance floor, and cocktails worth two weeks' wages of a Kenyan laborer are split, it's unclear what else the new conquerors will make of Africa's future.