Theresa May’s trip to Africa comes at a time of unique circumstances. There is a win-win opportunity for both sides to seize. For this to be realised the Prime Minister must deliver on not just Britain’s interests but those of African countries as well.
UK Commonwealth ties with the continent are long-standing and aid contributions continue to be significant. Yet, trade in goods between the UK and the continent is marginal. Less than two percent of the UK’s exports and just over two percent of imports come from African countries.
Leaders across Africa seek investment in infrastructure and links to finance: that’s what China’s Belt and Road global project has delivered and in doing so has shone a light on the power of international trade to move the needle on development.
Historically, the UK has been slower to encourage trade links across the continent, and not just compared to the emerging super power. Significantly, since Macron’s premiership begun just over a year ago, he has visited Africa nine times.
Now, as the government steps-up efforts to grow a stronger trading partnership with the continent, understanding where trade could have most impact across will reap rewards for both parties.
This can be achieved through a set of four principles. One, by promoting investment in job-creating sectors like agriculture and infrastructure. Africa’s youthful population offers a huge economic opportunity. Two, by offering up skills in sectors where we hold world-leading expertise, such as innovative technologies like off-grid solar power. Crown Agents, for example, has installed solar technology across the continent, including in Kenya and Nigeria. Three, by ensuring trade routes go two ways. The government must make it easier for African businesses to access the UK market. Theresa’s May’s announcement of the post-Brexit rollover of the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreement is a welcome first step. A UK import promotion facility would help promising African businesses to grow, flourish and enrich the UK’s own consumer choice, while helping to make our exports more competitive. Finally, four, by using the aid budget to promote UK business investment in areas of need. Any investment could be match-funded, for example.
This approach must be delivered responsibly. For decades we’ve been governed by high ethical standards and trading regulation provided through the European Union. Britain’s new chapter must take these high standards forward.
The Prime Minister’s trip to Africa is significant. But it must also be strategic. The UK is behind the curve when it comes to trade across the continent. To stand out amongst the larger economies of competitors, Global Britain must focus trade and investment in sectors that offer the most significant development benefits.