By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) – Kenya’s president endorsed Italy’s plan for closer cooperation with Africa on Tuesday, saying it was evidence that Europe was taking the continent seriously despite criticism over the limited initial funding.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni unveiled a long-awaited initiative on Monday aimed at helping African countries prosper in return for curbing illegal immigration, pumping a preliminary 5.5 billion euros ($5.96 billion) into the scheme.

Some critics scoffed at the small scale of many of the projects, while the chairman of the African Union Commission publicly chastised Meloni for not consulting more widely on the priorities beforehand.

But Kenyan President William Ruto told Reuters that the so-called Mattei plan, named after the late founder of Italian energy giant Eni, represented a good start.

“Every journey begins with one simple step. And I think that the most important step has been made, that we are recalibrating our relationship with Italy as a continent,” Ruto said.

The Kenyan leader said it was especially relevant given Italy held the rotating chair of the Group of Seven (G7) major Western powers, adding that he was confident Meloni would honour her pledge to promote African interests during her presidency.

“The narrative around Africa was conflict, disease, war. Now it’s changing. It is opportunity, investment, market and solutions,” he said, denying any doubts over the financial stability of his own country.

African Union Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat jolted his Italian hosts on Monday with sharply worded comments at the opening of the summit in Italy’s opulent Senate chamber.

“We are not beggars, our ambition is much higher, we want a paradigm shift for a new model of partnership that can pave the way towards a fairer and more coherent world,” he told Meloni.

“You can well understand that we can no longer be satisfied with mere promises that are often not kept,” he said.

Meloni’s domestic political foes accused her of short-changing her guests, saying much of the money that she pledged had already been announced previously.

“There is nothing new in the Mattei Plan, just funding already provided in the past and projects started long ago under another name,” said Davide Faraone, the Senate leader of the centrist Italia Viva party.

Of the 5.5 billion euros promised by Meloni, some 3 billion euros came from an international climate fund set up in 2021, while other funds would come in the shape of public guarantees rather than hard cash for on-the-ground projects.

“This is not entirely about money. This is about a relationship,” Ruto said, adding that Europe was waking up to the immense potential of Africa, which has the largest renewable energy resources in the world and two thirds of its arable land.

“The meeting encapsulated a new thinking not just in Italy, but in Europe and globally, about the place of Africa as a continent,” he said.

($1 = 0.9228 euros)

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Additional reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Christina Fincher)

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