Picture: THINKSTOCK
Nigeria’s crude oil exports to the US have fallen from $40bn in 2008 to $2.7bn last year — down more than 90%. Angola has seen a dramatic drop too, from $19bn in 2008 to $5.2bn last year. Picture: THINKSTOCK

WE HAVE known for some time that Africa’s commercial relationship with the world is changing. Two correlated features explain this.

The first, quite obviously, is that Africa’s rising economic significance, coupled with the deepening of its consumer markets, is rendering its economies more attractive — or at a minimum, less easily ignored — for foreign investors looking to build a presence through the emerging world to ensure long-term growth and relevance.

In a recent study by the Economist Group, for instance, 65% of the 217 global companies surveyed across 45 countries outlined plans to expand into Africa as either an "immediate priority" or "priority within the next decade"; just 2% believed the continent to be "irrelevant" to their future plans. The expansion of these companies elevates scrutiny on the tone and direction of economic policy and legislation across Africa, as well as the ability of the continent’s nation states to deepen political reform.

The intensity of the global gaze cast on Nigeria’s remarkable elections at the end of last month was born not only of concern for potential unrest from any electoral dispute, but also from the large and growing investment community that now has much to lose from an unhinging of Nigeria’s momentum.

A second feature of Africa’s shifting relationship with the world has been the adjusting of its external partnerships away from singular reliance on its "traditional" trade and investment partners, typically Europe and the US, towards a more balanced environment in which fast-rising emerging economies play an equally, and at times even more substantial, role for the continent.

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AGAIN, this thesis has been well documented, most abundantly with the conception of the Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies and the assessment of how the Brics grouping, which now includes SA, has dramatically ramped up its commercial engagements with Africa, thus dislodging various historical patterns of reliance that the continent had little choice but to endure.

A deep consideration of Africa’s external trade flows last year further underlines these shifting sands, while exposing new dynamics that are further adjusting the direction of the continent’s future economic and geopolitical relevance.

Perhaps most significantly, trade flows last year underlined the dramatic retreat of the US as a major export partner for Africa. Last year US-Africa trade totalled just $73bn, down 15% from $86bn in 2013. US-Africa trade flows are now half as substantial as they were at their peak in 2008, at $145bn, when the US was easily the continent’s largest single trade partner.

The primary element of the lessening of US-Africa trade has been lower demand for crude oil. Naturally, US demand for (and the value of) crude oil was smashed in 2009, and African producers were affected: US imports of African crude oil halved from $89bn in 2008 to $47bn in 2009.

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MEANWHILE, shifts in the US, such as shale gas exploration, have structurally lowered demand for energy imports over the past five years in particular. Consider that last year the US imported $253bn of crude oil, 30% less than the $363bn it imported in 2008.

However, it is clear African oil producers have borne the brunt of the change in US oil imports, accounting for $78bn or 70% of the $110bn drop in US oil imports between 2008 and 2014.

Nigeria’s crude oil exports to the US have fallen from $40bn in 2008 to $2.7bn last year — down more than 90%. Angola has seen a dramatic drop too, from $19bn in 2008 to $5.2bn last year.

This compares with a substantial lift in US oil imports from Canada (up 34% between 2008 and 2014), and far more modest falls in oil imports in that period from Saudi Arabia (17%), Mexico (25%) and even Venezuela (40%).

Last year Africa exported just $11.6bn worth of crude oil to the US, meaning it is now a peripheral energy source for the world’s largest economy. And, quite remarkably, the value of total US exports to Africa in 2014 was greater, by $2bn, than the value of its total imports from the continent, allowing the US to run what may be its first trade surplus with Africa (a dramatic contrast to the $88bn trade deficit it ran with Africa in 2008). These shifts will undoubtedly alter the tone of the US’s political engagement with Africa.

The US retreat has also allowed China an untrammelled path to the summit of Africa’s trade pyramid. We estimate China-Africa trade grew 6% from $210bn in 2013 to $222bn last year. For now, China’s economic slowdown is not meaningfully reflecting in trade flows with Africa. China-Africa trade is now three times greater than US-Africa trade. China’s ascent is followed by other dynamic emerging world partners that have seen a continued elevation in their trade significance for Africa: last year three of Africa’s top 10 trade partners were emerging economies (China, India and SA); and of the total value of trade with Africa’s top 20 partners of about $940bn last year, half ($465bn) was conducted with emerging-world counterparts.

We further estimate total Brics-Africa trade last year lifted 4% to reach $376bn, bolstered not just by China but also India’s trade with Africa of $74bn (up almost 80% since 2008) and SA’s trade with the rest of the continent of $41bn.

Whereas in 2008 India-Africa trade flows were a quarter of Africa’s trade with the US and half of its trade with France, last year the value of India’s trade was greater than with both countries.

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THOUGH there is a broad and continuing realignment in African trade, last year’s data also suggest we cast aside oversimplified emerging/developed world frameworks in assessing the pattern of Africa’s commercial relationships. Put simply, not all emerging economies are growing their trade significance with Africa, and not all advanced economies are slipping.

Within Brics, for instance, Africa’s trade growth has been lacklustre of late with Brazil (trade with Africa in 2014 was roughly on par with 2008 flows) and Russia (its trade with Africa hovers between $8bn and $12bn), and is being nudged aside by more compelling emerging-world trade partnerships.

For instance, last year South Korea-Africa trade totalled almost $27bn, marginally ahead of Brazil and almost 2.5 times Russia-Africa trade. Africa’s trade with the United Arab Emirates has grown almost 10-fold from $2.5bn in 2001 to more than $22bn last year; and with Turkey from $4.3bn to $19.7bn in the same period. And though total Europe-Africa trade is broadly down — from $431bn in 2013 to $409bn last year — some economies have registered notable recent growth: for instance, Spain-Africa trade last year at $59bn was up from $54bn in 2008; Netherlands-Africa trade has grown an impressive 45% since 2008; and Belgium-Africa trade stood at $31bn in 2014, against $22bn in 2008.

This compares with a slide in Africa’s trade with France and Germany (both down 10% since 2008) and the UK (which has slid 20% since a 2012 peak of $51bn).

In addition to the divergence of the outlooks within Europe, it remains clear Africa’s trade with the region is far more wholesome and diverse than with many of its rising emerging-world partners, particularly China.

By our calculations, last year Europe imported $23.5bn worth of food and agricultural produce from Africa (against Chinese imports of just $3.3bn); $27bn worth of manufactured goods (against Chinese imports of $2.5bn); and $8.8bn worth of clothing (against the $190m China imported of the same products) from Africa.

Looking ahead, it is inevitable that this year will see the value of Africa’s trade with virtually all of its key partners shaved by lower commodity prices, particularly crude oil. Last year, Europe imported $94bn and China imported $51bn worth of crude from Africa, almost half of both of their total imports from the continent for the year.

Yet, though this cyclical adjustment will be important, it should not drown out the meaningful underlying patterns of change manifesting in Africa’s external relationships, and what these may mean for the continent’s role in a reshaping global economic and political environment.

• Freemantle is a senior political economist at Standard Bank.