[Viewpoint] Africa is a big fish

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[Viewpoint] Africa is a big fish

Let’s talk about Africa today. Various people have criticized the near extinction of the Nile perch in Victoria Lake. The giant fish, as large as a human being, are considered a luxury to consume at the table. They are captured by poor fishermen, exported and enjoyed by rich white people in Europe. There is a clear contrast between the rich and the poor when it comes to this particular fish. It’s fully understandable that people are enraged to see Russian-made airplanes landing in Africa, unloading smuggled weapons and loading Nile perch before flying back to Europe.

We, however, feel particularly uncomfortable because the largest exporter of Nile perch is a Korean company.

The story dates back to the civil war in Rwanda. The majority Hutu went on a murderous rampage against the minority Tutsi and their corpses were dumped into Victoria Lake. Rumors spread that Nile perch fed on the victims’ bodies and Europe issued an import ban.

Poor fishermen in Africa suffered because exports of the fish amounted to 25 percent of total exports of some countries. Chairman Kim Sung-hwan of Hwan Sung Group made a big decision. He built warehouses and purchased all the Nile perch from the fishermen. After the European ban was lifted, he made big money with the frozen fish. His company also became a leading player in East Africa.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame is also an important person in this tale. Every early morning, he sweeps the areas near the presidential palace with a broom. He calls it the Saemaul Movement of Africa, after Korea’s own movement. A former commander of rebel troops, Kagame led Rwanda’s reconciliation efforts by introducing the gacaca system of confessing sins in an open plaza to receive forgiveness. “Under his leadership, it is hard to find beggars on streets or corrupt public servants in Rwanda,” said Na Chang-yup of KOTRA, who once served at the trade agency’s branch in Nairobi.

That is how that country, surrounded by other troubled lands, was able to achieve more than 7-percent economic growth annually. Kagame invited Korea’s former minister of science and technology, Oh Myung, to give some lessons about information technology industries.

For a long time, Koreans have found solutions to economic crises overseas. The oil shock of the 1970s was overcome with the construction boom in the Middle East. The three lows - low interest rate, low dollar value and low oil price - followed in the 80s. No other country has enjoyed China’s rise more than Korea.

The latest problem of unemployment among the young generation should be tackled with the same kind of resolution. No politician’s fancy blueprint will actually do much for the problem. Every year 600,000 people graduate from universities, but the country only produces about 220,000 quality jobs. The problem cannot be resolved even if a new company the size of Samsung Electronics is opened every year.

Africa is the last remaining land of hope. Its 1 billion population will double over the next four decades. About 90 percent of the population is under 40. It is a mistake to think of Africa as the home of Tarzan and the Lion King. Residents of some places speak perfect English, and most of the countries are located on high lands with great weather and natural environments. “To be honest, I would like to exchange the land with the Korean Peninsula,” Na of KOTRA said. And Africa is now waking up and asking Korea to teach technology instead of giving aid.

Korea is rapidly transforming from an importer of capital to an exporter. The National Pension Service has more than 300 trillion won ($260 billion) in funds and the amount will grow to 1,000 trillion won over the next decade. Investing in foreign stock markets and real estate will soon reach a limit. Recently, the National Pension Service, in cooperation with Dongwon Group, acquired a fisheries company in Senegal. Samsung, LG and Posco are also sending advanced teams. “As long as they are business experts with in-depth knowledge about the local markets, we are ready to cooperate at any time,” said Jun Kwang-woo, head of the National Pension Service.

Our youngsters in their 20s and 30s are overwhelmed with rage. It is time to find a breakthrough from the outside. To enter foreign markets, they will need the government’s support.

It is also no time for them to be absorbed by the candlelight vigils, “youth concerts” or Twitter. There are no solutions there. It’s time for them to look at the globe. Former Daewoo Chairman Kim Woo-choong once said, “It is a big world, and there’s a lot to be done.”

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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