Britain must seize the chance for more trade with Africa

Wednesday, 25 January 2017
Richard Dowden

In the debate about future trade deals post Brexit one destination has been almost completed ignored: Africa. China and India are the targets for future UK trade but why is Africa off the list? Too poor? Too strange? Too corrupt or violent?

Mainstream media content reflect images of poverty, disease and war and Africa sometimes throws up some real horrors. That reflects a reality but it is not the whole story of Africa. It is the most diverse continent on the planet. Snow on the equator, dense jungle and huge deserts all in the same country? There is wealth and success as well as poverty and failure. The Africa picture is complex but simplified and distorted by much media coverage.

Most of Africa is not at all dramatic or daunting. Today it is increasingly peaceful and prosperous. The rate of infant mortality – a good indicator of general well-being and access to health care – has fallen from around 1200 per thousand in 1990 to 60 per thousand this year. As general health improves, Africa’s population will double from a billion today to over 2 billion by 2050 and the median age will be about 25. That is 10 years younger than the next lowest continent, South America.

Africa’s economic growth rate dropped slightly to about 3.7% last year but is predicted to rise to 4.5% next year, the second highest in the world after East Asia. Listen to Japanese companies that do business in Africa. A recent survey showed more than half would expand their businesses in Africa in the next two years. 71% said increased sales was the driver. Despite a dip in Africa’s growth this year, more than half the companies expect profits to grow next year. McKinsey&Company’s latest report predicts a possible $1 trillion market by 2025 with 400 African companies bringing in an annual revenue of $1 billion.

Africa’s biggest problem has been governance but now only three countries on the continent do not hold regular elections. The process maybe flawed or in some cases, fixed, but fewer and fewer presidents sleep easily on the eve of an election.

English is now the official language in 19 countries including the giants and, despite the colonial past, Brits tend to be given a special welcome. The combined population including South Africa and Nigeria is well over 500 million people. If President Trump allows Power Africa, Barack Obama’s $9.7 billion project to electrify Africa, to continue, it will transform energy throughout the continent. Even if he pulls the plug on it Africa will still be the fastest urbanising continent in the world. The opportunities for Britain in Africa are immense.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society