Next week the former Brazilian President Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva will open an Seminar about Brazil-Africa cooperation at the Brazilian National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES) office in Rio de Janeiro. What does it have to do with responsible and sustainable business? Opportunities.

The Brazilian interest in Africa is neither news nor random.

History. Africans are founding fathers of the Brazilian society. Historians estimate that 4 million Africans were transported to Brazil as slaves by 1850, when slave trade was prohibited. Up to date,  the Brazilian society is heavily influence by African culture.

Trade. Brazil’s trade with Africa increased 400% from 2000 to 2010, significantly boosted by BNDES credit lines to Brazilian companies to export specifically to Africa. In 2009, US$360.5 million were disbursed to provide further incentives for Brazilian companies active in 19 African countries. In Mozambique, for instance, the Brazilian business conglomerate Odebrecht is the biggest employer in the country – 1.81o members as of September 2011.

Diplomacy. On the diplomatic level, Brazil and Africa started a stronger relationship under President Lula. Since 2003, 17 African embassies have opened in Brasilia, adding to the existing 16. President Lula visited about 25 countries in Africa, while his Minister of Foreign Affairs Celso Amorim, 34 countries. Brazil has established technical cooperation with 23 African countries in areas such as health, cash transfers and agriculture.

Institutional challenges, participation and transparency. The importance of this high-level seminar in Rio de Janeiro might be to ask ourselves: what is next? The Brazilian government needs to improve its institutional mechanisms to streamline and facilitate development cooperation and provide credit lines to business abroad and countries. To date, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sector Ministries, governmental agencies and the BNDES are getting this job done cooperating voluntarily and ad hoc – which is not a good recipe for efficiency.

It is also up to the government to create public awareness about the benefits of investing domestic money to tighten diplomatic relationships and to attract additional business for Brazilian companies abroad. This discussion should also be fostered in the Congress. Citizens need to be comfortable that their money is being channeled for their own benefit. Therefore, transparency should be a priority and should be reported separately from domestic operations.

At the same time, much more should be done to make sure that Brazilian NGO’s, academia and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are also effectively included in this plan. For example, technical cooperation led by Brazilian Agency of Cooperation (ABC) could also include other non-governmental organizations. “Innovation” and “sustainability” might be important criteria to select those because Brazil will only keep its relationship in the long-term if African countries –often treated with aggressive imperialist behavior by foreigners – are also happy with Brazil’s work and conduct.

Ongoing relationship building. BNDES’s role in expanding Brazilian businesses in Africa is as promising as the relationship building process of other Brazilian institutions with their African peers. However this process needs to be addressed under a broader diplomatic perspective that the Brazilian society needs to legitimate through a proper legislative process. It’s time to think strategically and act quickly. There are many opportunities for organizations in foreign countries, but more clarity is needed to make sure that opportunities are equally distributed among Brazilian organizations and supported by the Brazilian society.