Africa Investment Summit
This week we celebrate one year since the first UK Africa Investment Summit, where 18 heads of African states came to the UK at the invitation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Now that we are free from the constraints imposed by Brussels, we can consider alternative opportunities. They are rich and they are real.
Africa is a continent very close to my heart, where I spent my formative years: Africa. This is where the future lies. Once dismissed, now it may be the most rapidly-changing region on the planet.
Africa of course is huge and under-exploited. Almost triple the size of Europe, it covers a fifth of the Earth’s landmass. It has 17% of its population, but only 3% of its GDP. Regarded as a sleeping giant, beset by problems, trends clearly show burgeoning power and wealth. The giant is awakening.
By 2050 it is forecast to hold more than a quarter of all people. And contrary to pictures prevalent in the West, of fly-blown children queueing for aid handouts (a residue of famine footage) increasingly this population is both young and middle-class. 24 million people are added to its cities every year: the fastest middle-class growth anywhere in the world.
Naturally, the continent is not homogenous. Even in a relatively-small place like Europe: is Scotland the same as Greece? Places within one nation are very different. Africa contains multitudes. There is no doubt, though, that in many places there is a sense of dynamism.
Finally whole regions are emerging from deep shadows imposed in the past. As someone part of whose heart is African, I see it clearly (and joyfully). The continent has always had enormous potential, untapped, or tapped from outside – as some countries continue to do. But now, large parts of it look ready at last to realise it for their own benefit.
We in Britain must be ready to welcome these dynamic regions – and to benefit from the trading relationships that can be established (because when managed openly and correctly these will benefit both sides).
It is a time of vast change: the Covid-19 pandemic; riots and instability in the US; a new administration in the world’s dominant power (if China is posing an unprecedented threat). As has been said, there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.
Where will it end? Nobody knows. But with great change of course comes great opportunity. As an independent, sovereign power we must capitalise.
Like everyone, our Prime Minister has been gravely hampered by the pandemic. But he appreciates Africa’s potential, to an extent gratifying to see. Greater UK Export Finance funding has been made available for markets, like this one, with large potential. The Minister for Trade – having lived in Africa himself – is pushing British exports. ‘Global Britain’ should be no mere slogan. Innovation in science and technology can see us capitalise upon a huge opportunity.
In recent years continental Europe has dominated our trade. But before that countries of the old British Empire and Commonwealth did – in south Asia, or in Africa. Our recent commercial history with Africa is one of sad decline. In the 1970s, 16% of Africa’s imports came from the UK. In 1998 it was 7%. Now it is roughly 2%. Germany and France both export double what Britain does to Africa.
But it is not too late. Our influence on the continent remains very large – from language to football. Our past commercial importance can be revived – on a more equal and mutually-rewarding footing, of which everyone can feel proud. A new, unleashed, post-pandemic Britain must behave like a business – innovating and moving quickly and decisively, anticipating change not merely reacting to it.
Africa is where the future lies and we, aware of the skeletons in our closet, can play a major part in it.