As Turkey marks the annual Africa Day, I take the opportunity to celebrate Africa's achievements and rejoice in our developing partnership. Africa's ascendancy makes all Turks proud and motivates us to engage in closer ties and cooperation. Political institutions around Africa are evolving even as we witness the emergence of a strong middle class in many African countries.
The continent has the aspiration to take strides across all Sustainable Development Goals. Africa's aspirations include not only eliminating absolute poverty, but also reducing inequality, offering a wealth of valuable education opportunities to all and reinforcing good governance as the norm. Africa operates increasingly as a cohesive unit. The Continental Free Trade Area Agreement has been a critical milestone that will shape the future of Africa.
We have every reason to be proud a partner of the African nations. Turkey's engagement is based on building lasting relationships. Our principal purpose is to establish deep-rooted cooperation with our African counterparts in a manner that is sustainable and mutually productive. I have been encouraged to hear in so many instances that Turkey's good will and determined outreach resonates with our African partners. Africa considers Turkey a vigorous partner in its progress toward comprehensive and sustainable development and its consequent influence in global affairs.
Our interest to Africa is concretized by intensified political contacts at the highest level. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has paid official visits to 26 African countries since his Prime Ministry term. These visits opened new venues of cooperation. The multitude of agreements signed show that Turkey is committed to opening new areas of collaboration with African countries.Turkey's outreach toward Africa has been built on visible, tangible and mutually beneficial foundations. Turkey is now represented on the continent with 41 embassies with the latest openings in Sierra Leone and the Equatorial Guinea. We will raise this number to 50 in the medium term with the ultimate target of being represented in every African country.
The year 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of our strategic partnership with the African Union (AU). Recently, I had the pleasure of hosting high-level AU officials and African foreign ministers in Istanbul as part of a ministerial conference that reviewed our institutional cooperation. We set new targets for a more productive relationship. As a first step, we will organize the Second Turkey-Africa Business Forum this October in Istanbul. Next year we will also hold the Third Turkey-Africa Summit. We attach great importance to this Summit and will work to guarantee its success.
Trade with the African continent now exceeds $20 billion U.S. dollars. This represents nearly a five-fold increase compared to 2003. It also shows that both Africa and Turkey are benefiting from an equitable trade relationship. We recognize the important role played by the Regional Economic Communities in the future of Africa. In that sense, last February we organized the first Turkey-Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Economic and Business Forum with the aim of deepening the economic partnership between Turkey and ECOWAS members.
I am particularly proud to underline that our national airline carrier Turkish Airlines (THY) continues to extend its presence on the continent by adding new destinations to its flight network. THY is currently flying to 52 destinations in 34 countries in Africa. The latest addition to THY's network was Freetown in Sierra Leone. Flights to the Comoros Islands will also be starting this June. Our national carrier is helping Africans to travel to Turkey and to the rest of the world.
Turkey is actively contributing to peace and security on the continent. We are also assisting efforts to combat terrorism in the Sahel. At the recent Brussels Conference, Turkey pledged $5 million to support the regional G5 Sahel security force. Humanitarian and development partnerships have been strong elements of Turkey's overall outreach to the continent. Many ministries, agencies and nongovernmental organizations in Turkey take part in this combined effort. Our benchmark for success is responding to meeting local needs in a speedy manner. From 2004 until 2016, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) spent $1.43 billion to support sustainable development efforts in the continent.
I would like to underline again that we highly appreciate that many African countries have taken swift action against various organizations affiliated with the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), which attempted a bloody coup in Turkey.
The Maarif Foundation, a government run agency, has begun to operate schools in Africa. Our goal is to provide solid support to the efforts of the African governments to provide affordable and quality education all over the continent. I am confident that students receiving an education in the Maarif schools will be eminently prepared to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Providing higher education opportunities to qualified African students in Turkey through scholarships is also a promising leg of our cooperation. Each year over 1,000 students from Africa come to Turkey to receive their higher education through Turkish government scholarship programs. Their presence is welcome and we will to continue to be a center of excellence for African students.
Our approach to Africa is based on transparent, long-term and strategic partnership. We are confident that this partnership promises a bright future to Turkey and to our partners in Africa.
As I mark Africa Day with joy, I underline Turkey's commitment to our partnership with Africa based on the principles of equality, partnership, solidarity, sustainability and mutual respect.
* The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey