Bangladesh needs to connect with the African countries in sectors where economic complementarities exist, according to experts and stakeholders, as they said the African subcontinent could be the next potential destination for Bangladeshi exports.
"Bangladesh is eager to utilise the African economic platforms such as the South African Development Forum, African Continental Free Trade Area Framework and Economic Community of West African States," said Ambassador Mashfee Binte Shams, secretary (East) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at a seminar in Dhaka on Sunday.
Beyond trade and commerce, she mentioned that Bangladesh looks to increase cooperation on agriculture, research and education, social development, health, IT and ICT, and SME sector.
At the seminar titled "Look Africa: Exploring New Horizons for Bangladesh" and organised by the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), she pointed out some stumbling blocks in harnessing the trade potentials.
"Instability and security issues, lack of interest from the African side, distance and fear of the unknown are the major challenges," she noted.
The African subcontinent comprises 54 nations, while Bangladesh has considerable bilateral trades only with South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and Kenya.
In FY22, Bangladesh exported goods worth $133.33 million to South Africa as the import was around $185.50 million, according to the Export Promotion Bureau.
In that year, Bangladesh's exports to Egypt and Kenya were only $51.71 million and $20.28 million respectively. The export basket includes readymade garments, ceramics, pharmaceuticals, jute, food products, light engineering items, electronic products and home appliances.
As the chief guest, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said countries that already have footprints in the subcontinent are seizing the trade advantages. "We only have ten missions there. However, we have made some progress in some countries including Sudan."
Asked why there is no remarkable success in contract farming in African countries yet, the foreign secretary said, "It takes time. Besides, there must be a structure first. We are working on it."
Though there are several challenges at home for investing abroad, he urged the private sector to ramp up their trade initiatives to Africa first.
"...It is not possible now to say exactly when we will get the results, but we will continue our efforts," Masud Bin Momen added.
Mentioning Africa's local culture and sensitivities should be considered before making investments, the foreign secretary said, "There is no one-size-fits-all solution here. Africa is a big continent and each country has a different legal system."
Syeda Rozana Rashid, international relations professor at Dhaka University, talked about the potentials of the Bangladesh-Africa migration corridor.
She said, "The African subcontinent accounts for less than 1% of our total labour migration. But there is huge potential there, particularly in contract farming. There are also booming economies where we can send skilled and unskilled workers in infrastructure, construction, service sectors, IT and mining."
"Besides, there are scopes for educational migration of African students to Bangladesh for higher studies," she noted.
Around 2.5 lakh Bangladeshis are working in different African countries, according to unofficial estimates. Of them, more than 1 lakh are in South Africa where most of the Bangladeshis are self-employed.
According to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), around 1.22 lakh Bangladeshis have been employed in Libya since 1976.
Ambassador Kazi Imtiaz Hossain, chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies; Fahmida Khatun, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue; Major General Sheikh Pasha Habib Uddin, director general of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies; Brigadier General Shamim Kamal of the National Defence College; Shams Mahmud, honorary consul of Ethiopia to Bangladesh and former president of the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry; spoke at the event.
Binayak Sen, director general of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, moderated the working session of the event.