Revival of Brazil and Africa’s trade, investment relations

Published Nov 11, 2022


By David Monyae

Brazil and Africa sit on opposite sides of the south Atlantic Ocean. But their connection goes beyond geography to encompass history, heritage, and ancestry.

It is also bridged by the biggest group of the African diaspora.

The South American country is the biggest host of people of African heritage outside of Africa.

The presence of 109 million people (slightly over 50 percent of the Brazilian population) with African heritage is the legacy of the arrival of 5 million African slaves on Brazilian shores in the 17th century. However, the oppression and the marginalisation of black people in Brazil have meant that these historic and ancestral connections have been largely mute in Brazil-Africa relations. Brazil’s political leaders have for the greater part neglected and de-emphasised this connection.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s victory in Brazil’s presidential elections held at the end of October where he defeated the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro may signal a new lease of life for Brazil-Africa relations.

Famously known as Lula, Brazil’s president-elect has previously acknowledged this connection during his first stint as president between 2003 and 2011. Indeed, his run for president was propelled by the overwhelming support of Afro-Brazilians. Addressing the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) Summit in 2010, Lula was quoted as saying “Brazil would not be what it is today without the participation of millions of Africans who helped build our country”.

Indeed, Lula walked the talk by invigorating Brazil’s African policy. He added 20 Brazilian embassies in Africa, toured more than 27 African countries and strongly pushed Brazilian companies towards Africa. Apparently, he encouraged Brazilian corporations to hire Afro-Brazilians to manage their investments in Africa.

Lula’s first eight years in power saw Brazil-Africa trade grow from just under US$4 billion in 2003 to over US$17 billion in 2011. However, under his successors, Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016), Michel Temer (2016-2018) and Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022) Brazil and Africa’s economic and diplomatic relations suffered.

In 2021, the value of trade between the two sides was a mere US$7.4 billion. As a matter of fact, amongst the BRICS countries, Brazil has the least amount of trade with Africa. During Bolsonaro’s tenure as president, Africa was simply not a priority for his administration. This is not surprising for someone who was buddies with the former US President Donald Trump who infamously described Africa in grossly vulgar terms and never set foot on the Continent.

Bolsonaro also never visited a single African country as president in yet another clear signal that Africa was lower down in his list of priorities. Further, Bolsonaro’s term saw some of Brazil’s biggest investments in Africa withdraw and close shop. For example, Brazil’s Petrobas sold its African subsidiary, Petrobas and Gas BV and exited the Continent in 2020.

Another Brazilian concern, Vale, which invested in Mozambique’s coal sector called it quits in 2021 pulling out Brazil’s biggest investment in Africa. The movement of significant investments between two countries is usually a reflection of their diplomatic relations.

As such, the withdrawal of Brazil’s investments in Africa is a reflection of a diplomatic vacuum that has grown between the two parties. The dip in economic and diplomatic relations between Brazil and Africa undermines the spirit of South-South co-operation, which has been widely touted in the global south as a panacea to inequitable and unjust North-South relations from which the global south has emerged worse off.

For South-South co-operation to succeed, Brazil and Africa must nurture and grow trade, investment, and cultural pathways.

Lula’s presidency is an opportunity to reverse the decline in Africa-Brazil relations. Through platforms such as BRICS and the Group of 20 (G20) will become a key catalyst and strong voice for South-South co-operation, which he has consistently championed in his illustrious political career.

In Lula, Africa will have a reliable ally and partner especially when it comes to the reform of global institutions such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the Bretton Woods Institutions and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Africa has long held the short end of the stick in global institutions, which has left the Continent disadvantaged and largely disenfranchised in international trade and financial systems.

Climate justice is likely to be high on the agenda of Africa-Brazil co-operation under President Lula. This would ensure that the international framework for fighting climate change does not disadvantage developing countries that have been the hardest hit by climate change events. On a bilateral level, President Lula’s administration will seek to revive Brazil and Africa’s trade and investment relationship and thus create strong and resilient supply chains to serve as a foundation for an alternative global order.

Another important area of co-operation will be agriculture. Brazil has transitioned from being a net food importer to becoming one of the biggest food producers, which has earned it the title “the breadbasket of the world”.

The country’s exports of important crops such as soya bean, maize, and sugar cane are reportedly feeding 10 percent of the world’s population. Brazil is well-poised to assist Africa in improving its agricultural products, which will help avert the perennial problem of food insecurity.

It remains to be seen what shape Brazil-Africa relations will assume under the president-elect Lula. However, if the recent past is anything to go by, the relationship is due for its second great leap.

David Monyae is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Sciences and Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

This article was exclusively written for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.