The UK and Africa: Opportunities in flux
It has been a turbulent start of the year for significant parts of Africa, as it has for the UK. Growing popular discontent with the poor leadership and economic mismanagement by sclerotic, out of touch elites has fuelled deadly protests in Zimbabwe and Sudan. Disputed elections in the enormous Democratic Republic of Congo – a country the size of western Europe - and a coup in Gabon, threaten severe unrest in the heart of Africa. Meanwhile Islamist insurgencies continue to infect significant portions of North, West, East and the Horn of Africa, occasionally spilling over into significant regional economic centres such as in the tragic attacks in Nairobi at the start of the year.
Yet it is worth repeating that Africa is a continent of 54 countries, a point Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner Emma Wade-Smith made eloquently when she spoke to British Expertise International members about her new role, perspectives and priorities for a continent that is predicted by 2050 to have a population almost as large as that of India and China combined. Emma emphasised the sheer scale and diversity of the continent by showing the image below depicting many of the world’s largest countries superimposed to the same scale within Africa.
So a key message was that, despite the challenges, there are within overall growth estimates of 3% for 2019 (still beating global estimates) significant variations and opportunities for business, and the UK remains uniquely positioned to benefit.
Brexit was mercifully largely absent from the meeting, with Emma making the point that it does not figure as an issue of particular immediate concern for African states, and in some cases is fuelling greater interest in the UK as a trade partner. French speaking countries in particular continue to welcome the opportunity to diversify trading relationships away from an over-dependence on France, and UK companies in particular are in demand. But beyond the headlines, there are also real opportunities emerging for UK trade in some key growth markets such as Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and of course South Africa and Nigeria, all of which are now middle income countries with increasingly dynamic, globally aware and sophisticated middle classes enjoying close links to the UK on many levels.
Having said this, identifying and navigating the obstacles of doing business in Africa remains challenging – particularly for those UK companies with little experience of these markets. At the same time, there is growing recognition that it is the private sector that is critical for the development Africa needs if it is to be a net contributor to global stability, and avoid the risks that would emanate from the toxic combination of poverty, vast youthful and alienated populations and social media. For this reason, the UK Government is increasingly focussed on supporting UK companies to identify and win business as a key development, security and political objective, as well as a trade priority. The role of HM Trade Commissioner is key in facilitating, coordinating and leading such efforts.
This more holistic UK interest in promoting trade and business growth across key African markets was recognised in Prime Minister Theresa May’s Africa visit last year, during which she announced a UK-Africa trade summit to be hosted later this year. With the right preparation and thought, this promises to be an important early opportunity post-Brexit for the UK to demonstrate its entrepreneurial reach and appetite to engage some key international partners on a mutually beneficial growth agenda. It will also be an opportunity to demonstrate that the UK has not just the ambition, but the staying power and strategic focus to follow through on its commitments. In support of this, the UK recently commenced a new 20 year Africa strategy, developed on a cross Whitehall basis by an FCO team, and championed by a senior DFID official via the National Security Council. This is a key and insufficiently understood landmark in the UK developing a more strategic and thoughtfully resourced approach on critical regions and issues internationally and could be a key differentiator. At the BEI meeting, Emma pointed out that during the Prime Minister’s Africa visit it was also announced that the UK has the ambition to become the largest G7 investor in Africa by 2022, overtaking the US. When this was recently put to a senior US official the wry response was ‘We welcome the competition’.
The tendency of UK diplomats in the past to ‘manage expectations’ abroad has perhaps too often in practice led to declining ambitions. The sense that this may be changing in Africa is to be welcomed – especially now. Yet fulfilling that ambition will be important to the UK’s global credibility at a critical time. The private sector is being lined up to play a central role in achieving these objectives. For this reason, Emma’s role, and the objective of further integrating HMG activities across Africa in support of the sustainable trade agenda is of huge importance, and the role of organisations such as BEI for our members is critical. So whilst Brexit may dominate the headlines for some time to come, it is in our relations with Africa this year that the UK may be setting the bar for the future of ‘Global Britain’.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG.