UK brings a new focus to Africa

The visit of British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt to five African countries in April could mark the beginning of renewed efforts to cultivate trade with the continent. David Thomas reports.

Visits to five African countries in five days may not allow much time to make a meaningful or lasting impression, but for UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, a whistle-stop April tour to Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya was a chance to keep up appearances and secure maximum exposure to what he dubbed the UK’s “partners for investment and trade”.   

From the obligatory economic forum in Kenya featuring a purported £64m in business funding to deal announcements in Ghana, Hunt’s conversations revolved around the fresh trade opportunities that the UK hopes to unlock on the continent following its exit from the European Union.

Yet with protracted domestic political turmoil casting uncertainty over the future of Brexit and British trade policy, and allies-turned-rivals France and Germany organising significant high-level visits of their own, the foreign minister and his trade envoys had their work cut out to convince would-be partners that the UK remains indispensable.    

For Emma Wade-Smith, appointed Her Majesty’s trade commissioner for Africa in June 2018, Hunt’s visit was a chance to build on prime minister Theresa May’s initial foray last year and put the UK back on the African agenda after several quiet years.  

“The story across each of these visits was building on the PM’s visit last year.

“That visit was really the first opportunity for us as a UK government to say that Africa really matters, it matters to the UK for prosperity interests, security interests, and when you look forward and project demographic growth and economic growth, all of the indicators demonstrate that Africa becomes increasingly important to the UK.

“As a result we need to re-energise our links.” 

In recent years, the UK has been unusually slow to grasp the value of senior-level visits to Africa. Theresa May’s August and September visits to Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa were the first to the continent by a prime minister in the five years since predecessor David Cameron’s attendance at Nelson Mandela’s 2013 funeral. 

While Jeremy Hunt’s itinerary offered a familiar series of photo opportunities and pre-arranged deal announcements, such high-level visits are essential to cementing political and business relations and greasing the wheels of trade, says Wade-Smith.

She expresses frustration that the UK’s rigid parliamentary calendar has thwarted previous visits, but admits that the focus on other dynamic global markets has also allowed a narrative of indifference to take hold.  

“People still talk to me about the PM’s visit. It does really matter – when we don’t have those senior political visits, people notice. It’s really important to keep docking in at senior level across governments to reinforce the messages of partnership and working together on a shared agenda around business.” 

France and Germany boost presence

The UK’s wish to boost the number of political visits to the continent reflects the increasing premium placed on high-level handshake diplomacy in Africa.

In the last several years, the continent has witnessed blockbuster trips from then-US President Barack Obama and Chinese premier Xi Jinping, both of whom towed along vast business delegations and signed off on multi-million dollar deals.

Of more immediate concern to the UK, recent months have seen European heavyweights France and Germany flexing their diplomatic muscles. In March, President Emmanuel Macron of France undertook a whirlwind tour of East Africa, including a trip to Anglophone Kenya, where he promoted French business in a market once seen as part of the UK’s post-imperial “sphere of influence”.

In May, German chancellor Angela Merkel completed a security-focused three-country tour of West Africa, building on a business trip to the region last August. With Britain’s soon to be ex-EU partners rooting around for deals and trade opportunities, the UK must use high-level visits to convince UK business to play their part in boosting UK-Africa trade, says Wade-Smith.  

“The UK-Africa trade relationship is about £32bn over the last four quarters, and it’s fairly equally balanced between exports and imports, and entirely balanced between goods and services. That trading relationship has grown about 7% over the last 12 months, and that’s not bad when you look at overall global trading growth, but I think there’s so much more we can do. Across the UK business community there is much more to be done to talk about the opportunity and to look realistically at opportunities versus challenges.”  

Lack of certainty

Yet with the Brexit project mired in delay as the UK parliament squabbles over an elusive withdrawal agreement, UK businesses are lacking the certainty required to forge lasting trade links with new African partners. Talk of a much-hyped “Brexit dividend” remains just that in a protracted pre-Brexit period in which the UK is prohibited from signing independent trade deals.

A permanent customs union deal with the EU could further erode the possibility of fundamentally altered Africa deals. Given the uncertainty, the UK appears to be temporarily parking grand ambition in favour of continuity. 

“What we’ve focused on over the last 18 months is continuity – the really important piece of ensuring there’s no cliff edge at the point the UK leaves the EU,” says Wade Smith.

“So the focus has been on discussions with host governments to replicate and transition existing EU Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) and association agreements in North Africa.

“Those conversations are continuing, we have signed Eastern and Southern African EPAs and are working on a complex web of others with a very clear view of making sure the trading relationship stays the same as we leave the EU. In the process of having those conversations what has come out strongly is a desire by African governments to look again at the terms of the arrangements and improve on them… there is a desire to get into the next round of discussions and that can’t happen until we leave the EU.” 

Negotiating that future has been made more complicated by the loss of common expertise that will come with the UK’s withdrawal from EU trade teams. Wade-Smith says that the UK’s Department for International Trade has been boosted with new hires, but admits that there will be a learning curve. 

“It takes time but I’ve been really impressed with the scale and speed with which we’ve brought in people and trained them up. Inevitably after 40 plus years of not needing to do it ourselves that requires a lot of work to replicate.”  

Towards a new strategy

Yet rushing to negotiate new trade deals may not be the solution.  

 “I think the answer lies not necessarily in free trade agreements because they are complex, complicated things to negotiate and there are lots of things than can be done that don’t require free trade agreements. What does that look like – that’s the next phase.”

The patient legwork required may be a far cry from the trade bonanza hopes of Brexiteers. But regardless of whether the benefits materialise, Wade-Smith says that the imperative of looking beyond the European Union has brought a new UK focus to Africa after several lean years – especially to Francophone and Lusophone markets where it has historically lacked a footprint. Hunt’s trip to Francophone Senegal may be the precursor to a new strategy. 

“We do have smaller market shares in Francophone countries in particular so we are looking to understand the source of that and find out whether there are other things we can do as a government to encourage the flow of UK companies into those parts of the continent.

“When I speak to governments, they say ‘Where are UK companies? Come and tender for these deals.’”

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