We want to see more Indian companies in every field: Zenawi

It has taken 64 years for an Indian Prime Minister to visit Ethiopia but when Manmohan Singh sat down with its leadership here on Wednesday, he must have felt India has no better friend in the whole of Africa. “I am often accused of being too pro-India,” Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told Dr.Singh when they began their talks at the former palace of Emperor Haile Selasie. “And my answer is, 'Guilty as charged!”

Officials present at the meeting said, Mr. Zenawi welcomed the re-emergence of India as a global powerhouse and noted how Indian investment in Ethiopia had shot up to $4.7 billion in just four years. Speaking to reporters at a joint press conference later, the Ethiopian Prime Minister said he hoped to see that figure touch $10 billion by 2015. “We want to see more Indian companies in every field, from textiles and food processing to IT and agriculture.”

Mr. Zenawi ridiculed what he said was “ill-informed and even ill-intentioned loose talk” about Indian farming companies indulging in “land grabbing” in Ethiopia. The country had 3 million hectares of unutilised land which it intended to lease out to foreign companies to grow food, he said. Karaturi, the Hyderabad-based agricultural investor, has already been given a lease of 300,000 ha. in the Gambela province to produce maize. “Everything is transparent and the deeds can be seen on the Internet... We want to develop our land to feed ourselves rather than admire the beauty of fallow fields while we starve,” Mr. Zenawi said in response to a question about concerns expressed in some quarters about the leasing programme. It was possible that land-grabbing was going on elsewhere in Africa but not in Ethiopia, he said, adding, “I want to reassure Indian companies that they are welcome here. We want them to come and farm what is virgin land.”

While Dr. Singh expressed the hope that the balance of trade which is currently heavily weighted in favour of India would gradually equalise as the Ethiopian economy grew, Mr. Zenawi told reporters the imbalance was not a big issue. “Our bilateral trade is $660 million, which is peanuts compared to our overall trade. I am less concerned about the contents of the peanuts than about the fact that these are peanuts. It is the capacity to trade that we lack and this is what India is helping Ethiopia to develop through its investments,” Mr. Zenawi said.

India, which has sent thousands of teachers to Ethiopia since the 1950s, has now agreed to provide specialised training to Ethiopian diplomats and trade negotiators as part of its capacity building programme. On Tuesday, Dr. Singh announced a $300 million line of credit to help revive the Ethiopia-Djibouti rail route. With Ethiopia in a state of ‘no war, no peace,' with Eritrea, Djibouti remains the only viable outlet to the sea for this landlocked nation of 85 million people.

Dr. Singh's final engagement in Ethiopia will be an address to its parliament on Thursday morning, following which he travels to Tanzania for a two-day official visit.