South Korea, another Asian economy waking up to the potential of Africa, is planning to open an embassy in Mozambique next year.
As with Tanzania and Kenya to the north, Mozambique is also home to a large Muslim Indian community that has retained its strong ties — cultural, family and commercial — with the sub-continent.
Yet Brazil remains the front-runner in the race to win Mozambique’s heart, thanks to intangible cultural connections like the popularity of its soap operas.
“When Brazilian investors arrive here, no one can say they don’t know who they are,” said Selma Inocencia of Miramar Mozambique, the local arm of the Brazilian channel that makes Balacobaco. “They are present in the music we listen to, in the films we watch.”
Miramar came to Mozambique in 1999, long before the resource boom that has attracted 4,000 Brazilians. With its grammatically simple Brazilian Portuguese and plots that are easy to relate to, its soap operas became an instant hit with Mozambique’s 23 million-strong population.
The story of Balacobaco revolves around Isabel, an architect whose dreams of building a house dissolve when her husband gambles their savings away.
“I can identify with a character in every novela [soap opera],” said Daisy Mogne, a 24-year-old communications student. “They make me feel understood and help me see that there are people all over the world with the same problems and joys as me.”
Miramar now supplements its output with local content, modeled on a Brazilian template.
“Some people criticized us. They said that we wanted to ‘Brazilify’ the Mozambican, but at the end of the day it is a question of identifying with the market,” Inocencia said.
A country with deep African roots celebrated for lifting itself out of poverty, Brazil’s appeal is that of a successful older sibling.
Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva emphasized Brazil and Mozambique’s shared struggles with Portuguese colonialism when he spoke of Brazil’s “sacred” relationship with Africa at a conference in Maputo last month.
“We look to Africa as a partner, not with pity,” he said, urging greater ties between the world’s emerging economies. “The Chinese may be here, but they don’t have a third of our charm.”