Japan is preparing to host two major events in the coming few months: the seventh edition of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) and the much bigger Summer Olympic Games. Ahead of it; six African journalists were invited to visit the country and offered the chance to talk to prominent personalities, government officials and business enterprises. Professor Kenichi Ohno is a renowned Japanese scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. He has authored more than 27 books and papers. He has advised several government leaders, including former Ethiopian leaders Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam Desalegn. This is an excerpt from his discussion in Tokyo, Japan with journalists that includes freelance writer Elias Meseret.
Question: What do you exactly do at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies?
Professor Kenichi Ohno: What I do is... I talk to high government officials including Presidents and Prime Ministers i.e. if they are interested to know how Japan and Asia grew. Then we start a dialogue. I've been doing it for many, many years now. As such; I've been to Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, Zambia, South Africa, Djibouti, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, India, Mauritius and so forth. I'm not purely academically interested. I'm interested on why some countries develop fast and why others get stuck in the low- or middle-income trap.
How did you begin your engagement with Ethiopia and expand a little bit on what the process looks like?
There was this conference organized by JICA in July 2008 and it was held in Addis Ababa. I was invited to this event and found out that Meles Zenawi was there. I was very surprised that for two days Meles was sitting there. I have never heard leaders staying in conferences for two days. Usually, they make a five minutes speech and then leave. He was participating in the discussions in an intelligent way. We gave him a book that we compiled. It was about how Asia developed fast. Chapter 7 of that book details how JICA supported Tunisia with a Kaizen project. One week later, he called us and asked us if we can replicate in Ethiopia the same thing that was done in Tunisia. He also asked if he can have a regular discussion with our university. That's how it started.
Then what does your engagement in Ethiopia looks like?
I went to Ethiopia four times a year in the first phase. Meles was there to receive us. We had a one hour and a half or a two-hour discussion; it was an intense discussion. We didn't want to discuss just academics, but what Japan can do and what Ethiopia can actually implement. In phase two, Hailemariam Dessalegn came and he was basically the same. Both Prime Ministers were interested in Kaizen and its philosophy. We usually discuss export promotion, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and various things. I discuss whatever they want to discuss. Some of our recommendations were incorporated into GTP 2.
Do you also engage with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD)? And how do you see his approach?
I think Prime Minister Abiy has a different style and I think it's a normal style. But I wasn't able to talk to him because he's in a higher rank. Actually, in many countries Presidents and Prime Ministers are difficult to get and talk to. Abiy is very dynamic and young so in the first year I was very impressed. But he has some risks too... I can tell. I know he came because Hailemariam wasn't able to handle the domestic instability. Prime Minister Abiy is always calling for unity and harmony but there is a risk that some people could take advantage of that and disturb the nation. That is exactly what's happening now. It is nice to release prisoners and call for unity... I think Meles wouldn't have done it that way. I guess he would do it little by little. I see risks and also hopes.
So, you are not talking to anyone within the Prime Minister Abiy's administration?
No. We are talking to the Prime Minister's economic team including Mamo Mihretu, Eyob Tekalign (PhD) and Abebe Abebayehu. These are our counterparts now.
Which Japanese companies are interested to do business in Ethiopia? There were reports of Toyota eyeing to enter the Ethiopian market.
We are talking about the automotive industry. We are asking Toyota to invest in the country. ISUZU already has its assembly plant but it is having a difficulty due to the foreign exchange problem. They are stuck. Some seven thousand cars are sold [in Ethiopia] but used cars also coming in the parallel market. Others countries sell from 200,000 to 300,000 cars. Kenya's automotive industry policy is better. ISUZU is doing better in Kenya. We are discussing with the Ethiopian government to make some changes in their policy. Ethiopia is in a very low level of development so knock-down production is very easy. I had a lot of discussion with Toyota and ISUZU already and we will continue to talk to them. Ethiopia has to learn from Kenya and Egypt.
What other things are concerning for Japanese companies?
The foreign exchange issue is a concern. There is also this political turbulence that is becoming a concern. Besides, some policies also need to be addressed before these Japanese companies invest.