It was just another evening at the Julius Nyerere International Airport. Flight calls sound. People whispering. Some were busy on their laptops. And there was me who was just looking to find a cool spot near the air condition unit.
After a bit of an eye search, I ended up seating next to a gentleman, who looked like a tourist but also like someone who is heading to the next meeting appointment. He stretches his hand to welcome me in the double seat as if he was expecting me.
Are you going to Arusha? He asked. Yes, I responded, and we continued to chat.
The gentleman seems to be very curious to learn everything about Arusha as if I were the first person he had met on his trip. Where are you from, I ask him? Turkey, he responds.
Is this your first time in Tanzania? I ask him again as it was my turn since he had bombarded me with a number of questions. He responds affirmatively, adding that today was his fourth day in Tanzania.
This was in 2019 as I was going to a five-day conference that was scheduled for November 14th of that year. I gave him a brief pitch about Arusha, the usual attraction, weather, the people, and how to enjoy the city.
He is in Tanzania to look for business opportunities, he says after we have been familiar with one another.
What business are you in? I ask again. Pharmaceutical, he replies. And just like that, the conversation shifted as he tried to squeeze any knowledge he could get about Arusha hospitals and the whole pharmaceutical chain.
The flight was called, we boarded. That was the end of our conversation till we reached Kilimanjaro for we couldn’t engage further as I had a company with me.
While it was just another random conversation to kill time, our exchange stayed with me and had me thinking about it every time. I learned from our conversation that he had no connection whatsoever in Tanzania, just a bit of information here and there.
With my experience travelling to various countries, I admired the courage this man displayed in getting in flight from Turkey believing he can actually secure some deals for his business in Tanzania. That engagement had me look at things differently from that day.
Enterprising as a vehicle for building influence
It’s now a common experience in the streets of Dar es Salaam to come into contact with some foreign traders who sell household items in minivans, identifying themselves as traders from Turkey.
These traders know their market so well. The moment you open your gate they will entice you with different kinds of offers, including taking items on credit. They win many customers this way.
For the majority of Dar es Salaam middle-income earners, Turkish fabric, ties, and shoes are everything. Many shops are now using the slogan, These goods are from Turkey to price their items well above the market price, and they sell fast.
Even in offices, more than once I have encountered Turkish businesspeople who sell generators. They will just knock and make their sale pitch after their welcome.
It’s Turkish enterprising everywhere. The brand name ‘Turkey’ has grown among Tanzanians to mean quality products at a fairly affordable price or, as they say, European quality at an Asian price.
But while this is a bit and pieces from the streets, perhaps we can look at what official data says.
While Tanzania’s export to Turkey is almost insignificant, Turkey’s import to Tanzania has continued to surge. In the past six years, Turkey has maintained its seating in the top 11 countries from which Tanzania imports most of its products.
The value of export from Turkey to Tanzania has also increased from $144 million in 2013 to $253 million in 2021.
The growing Turkish goods in the markets is thank to the enterprising spirit of the Turkish men and women in looking for new opportunities as well as Turkey’s policy drive for Africa.
Push for exploring the Africa market started in Turkey in 2005, but the formalization of a partnership between Africa was officiated during the first Africa-Türkiye Cooperation Summit held in Istanbul, Turkey on August 19, 2008.
This saw some developments, including the 390 km Awash-Weldia/Hara Gabaya railway project in Ethiopia, with construction costs at $1.7 billion.
The coming in of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the president had put a new impetus in the Turkey-Africa relations as observed with the Malabo Declaration during the Second Africa-Türkiye Summit held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea on November 21, 2014.
Since then, President Erdoğan has been expanding Turkey’s influence and presence to the new momentum, which ranges from trade and bilateral relations to military cooperation.
Big deals, more influence
When President Erdoğan visited Tanzania on January 22, 2017, it was almost two years since Tanzania had announced that it had awarded a consortium of Chinese companies to construct its new Standard Gauge Railway (SGR).
During the official state ceremony of welcoming the Turkish leader, former President John Magufuli announced that they have restarted the procurement process for the SGR tender and informed his Turkish counterpart that the Turkish company was among one of the companies that had bid in that tender.
A few days later, on February 3, 2017, Tanzania announced that it has awarded the first phase of building its standard gauge railway to a Turkish firm, Yapı Merkezi, using its own resources.
This was against a lucrative deal from Chinese firms who had committed to financing 10 per cent of the railway cost alongside a commitment from the China Exim Bank on providing finances for the railway.
It was an item for the books, Turkish firms had nabbed that deal straight out of the mouth of the Chinese firms. This was an important milestone on Turkey’s influence in Tanzania.
Yapi Merkezi went on to secure three other contracts of building that railway, taking in $5 billion, the most lucrative deal to a Turkish firm in the continent.
With time, Turkish firms have become bolder and have understood the nitty-gritty of securing government lucrative deals. On December 4, 2021, President Samia Suluhu Hassan had to intervene on a ship-building deal worth Sh438 billion that was awarded to a Turkish firm Yutek Gemi İnşa. San. Ltd. Şti.
While the contract was awarded in June 2021, the company couldn’t start any activities. Upon further due diligence, this is usually done before the contract. It was noted that the company did not have the financing or technical capacity to undertake the job. And also there have been a number of third-party agents benefiting from the deal without doing anything.
But overall, the year ended well for the Turkish firm, as Yapi Merkezi closed its third contract on December 28, 2021, taking in $5 billion in the whole project. It will be interesting to watch whether the shipbuilding contract will go back to Turkey or otherwise.
Turkish influence has graduated from securing small export deals and enterprising to wrestling with other giants, many of them even more powerful, in getting access to some of the lucrative infrastructure deals in the country.
For years, Turkey has been known for its contribution to the Tanzania education sector. With private schools that target individuals with higher net worth as well as charity schools and scholarships that saw about 40-48 students from Tanzania selected yearly to go for studies to the Middle Eastern nation.
But something interesting happened over the recent years. In 2018, for example, Azam TV, one of Tanzania’s digital broadcasters, introduced the first Turkish television show on its channel Azam Two.
Sultan, as the show is called, went on to build a cult-like following among Tanzania’s fans of soap operas. It is a Turkish classic film that managed to cuts through the streets of Tanzania like nothing else. On a global scale, I would say Sultan was the equivalent of Game of Throne.
I remember one day waking up and seeing all these Rest in Peace posts on social media, with some people actually crying. I was confused and started to search who died only to learn that this is was because one of the show’s protagonists, Mustafa, had died in the show.
It was surreal. The current Minister for Communication and Information Mr Nape Nnauye took it to Twitter to eulogize the death of Mustafa, writing: “For months now I have been following the Sultan show. One thing that is clear, people close to leaders/decision-makers are very important in making the right decisions! RIP Msatafa.”
Because of the Swahili dubbing in the show, it became streets phenomena, with every household, poor or rich, looking forward to watching the latest episode. After the show finale, the network had to bring their fans to closure by bringing one of the actors of the film to Tanzania.
This explains then why it is not surprising to see that the Turkey Ambassador to Tanzania Dr Mehmet Gulluoglu is being invited to some Tanzania film events. It’s because of the impression that Turkish film had left in the country.
When you manage to influence people’s culture, it means you can also influence their spending which means more trade. This was a feat just like any other feat for Turkey on building its brand and influence in Tanzania.
But what is in for Tanzania?
When Erdogan visited Tanzania in 2017, there were about 30 Turkish investment projects in Tanzania, worth $305.8 million and provided employment to 2,950 individuals in Tanzania.
Rising Turkey’s influence and also interest in Tanzania means aside from Europe, the United States and China, there is an emerging player that Tanzania can also benefit from in terms of investments, finances, technology, and access to the market.
But all of these depend on Tanzania’s ability to negotiate and learn to see opportunities. As far as I’m concerned, there are two streams of opportunities that Tanzania can capitalize on.
First, the troubled Lira. The recent crashing of the Turkish currency means that there is an opportunity for capital from firms and individuals who look to diversify their risk in other geographical areas and in search of new opportunities.
Secondly, while what is happening in Ethiopia is unfortunate, the instability and unpredictability there mean that there is a vacuum for Turkey to look for another investment destination in Africa. With over $2.5 billion investment in Ethiopia, Turkey is Ethiopia’s second-biggest investor.
There have been a series of investors from Turkey coming in to assess Tanzania’s investment opportunities. But so far nothing significant has materialized. We have managed to become their market, the challenge is for us to start opening up Turkey’s market and lure them to invest in Tanzania.
Tony Alfred K is a political analyst based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @tonyalfredk. These are the writer’s own opinions and they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editor at email@example.com.