Britain’s exit from the European Union on 31 January creates an imperative for the UK to forge a new set of international alliances and trading arrangements.
Standing outside Downing Street after winning the premiership in July 2019, Prime Minister Boris Johnson encouraged his government to “start now on those free trade deals – because it is free trade that has done more than anything else to lift billions out of poverty.”
There are also positive signals for those who want to see stronger links emerge between Britain and Africa. UK investment in Africa has risen by 61% since 2008, for example. UK officials promise to deliver “sustainable investment” that can help African countries break cycles of booms and busts.
Companies from the UK could once rely on a deep network of contacts and knowledge that emerged from the days of empire. That ‘institutional memory’ has slowly unravelled – but not everywhere. In Kenya, for example, there are still about 60 large British companies active, including Barclays Bank, British Airways, BAT, Standard Chartered, Diageo, GlaxoSmithKline and BG Group – all of which can be found in many other African markets.
But they are a dwindling band. By the late 1980s, the relationship between the UK and Africa had become negligible – just more than 3% of UK exports went to Africa and less than 2% of UK imports came from the continent. By the late 1990s, aid had displaced trade as the focus of the UK-Africa relationship. And UK companies now find themselves in a more crowded and competitive marketplace on the continent, too.
So can the UK shift back to a ‘trade, rather than just aid’ agenda? Will British business compete effectively?
Nick O’Donohoe, CEO of one of the world’s oldest development finance institutions, the UK’s CDC Group, argues that British companies are up to the challenge. “We have world-leading technology and expertise in building and executing complex projects, particularly in areas like infrastructure. We have export finance support, although we’re probably not as mobile or joined up [as China].”