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The time is ripe to fully unlock the UK and Africa’s trade potential

The road to Brexit has been both long and winding, and over the past three and a half years we have heard arguments from both sides as to what this historic change will mean for Britain, and the wider international community. The UK-Africa Investment summit taking place today is a clear indication that despite concerns, the UK will fall behind with international trade, the Government is taking seriously the very real opportunity Brexit provides to expand and improve its trade relationships with one of the most culturally diverse, innovative and fastest developing continents in the world – Africa.

For too long, Africa has been overlooked and undervalued as a trading partner. Previous administrations have focused their attentions on developing strategic economic partnerships with countries likes of China, Japan, Germany and India, at the expense of both regional and a continent-wide economic framework in Africa. Bilateral trade between the UK and Africa totalled £28.7 billion in 2016. The UK imported £12.7 billion in goods and services from Africa in 2016. In fact, the value of UK-Africa trade in 2018 remained largely unchanged from a decade before. At the time of former Prime Minister Theresa May’s Africa tour in 2018, the entire African continent accounted for just three per cent of all UK good and services exports, by stark contest Europe took the lion’s share – 54 per cent.

Compared to other trading partners the UK is lagging far behind. The US, China, Germany and Japan have all established specific trading initiatives in the region with great success. In recognition of the largely untapped potential that exists to secure mutual benefit from a formal partnership, the recently appointed European Commission is prioritising the development of a comprehensive new Africa Strategy. Meanwhile, just last October the Russia-Africa summit in Sochi saw the announcement of sales agreements amounting to more than $12 billion. If Britain is serious about re-engaging globally and demonstrating its clout as a global trading actor, then it has to step up to the plate.

With eight of the 15 fastest growing economies in Africa, a growing African consumer market of $5 trillion, and the UK on the cusp of a new era of international trade, the time is ripe to fully unlock UK-Africa trade potential. However, in order to fully realise the benefits and ensure that UK-Africa trade relations are prioritised, we need a UK-Africa Prosperity Commission.

Proposed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Trade Out of Poverty (APPG-TOP) and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a UK-Africa Prosperity Commission would chart out the opportunities and future direction for a dynamic, new mutual trade partnership. Bringing together ministers from across key UK Government departments with African Governments and regional institutions such as the African Union (AU), while also drawing on the expertise of those at the forefront of existing initiatives working to boost economic activity in the region, the Commission would examine how the UK and Africa can better structure relations to the benefit of both parties.

Evidence has shown us time and again that the best and most sustainable way out of poverty is through trade, and so by working with African Governments to grow sectors where the UK has a competitive trade advantage, by removing trade barriers, standardising regulations and improving legal and business environments, we can increase prosperity across the board, create jobs and support the transformation of Africa’s rapidly growing urban centres.

Indeed, some of this work is already underway. As a result of the UK’s 0.7 per cent aid spending commitment, organisations such as TradeMark East Africa (TMEA) have been able to clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of private-public sector partnerships in facilitating trade through their work in Eastern Africa.

For example, working alongside DfID and the Kenya Ports Authority at Mombasa Port, TMEA were able to reduce port throughput time for imports by 30 per cent over the same period. Similarly, there has been a 16.5 per cent reduction in average time to transport a container from Mombasa or Dar es Salaam to Bujumbura or Kigali arising from TMEA’s interventions, contributing to reduced time and monetary costs for African and UK businesses alike.

More recently, we saw Secretary of State for International Development Alok Sharma launch Kenya’s first Green Bond on the Nairobi Stock Exchange. Developed with support from both DfID and the City, this bond will help Acorn Housing raise local currency to build environmentally friendly houses for students. It is initiatives like these that have ensured the returns on UK FDI in Africa are double that of anywhere else in the world.

The drive to establish new and exciting trade partnerships is not solely a British one. The African Union’s AU2063 agenda outlines ambitious plans to open up Africa to business and has overseen the creation of a single market for goods and services – the Africa Continental Free Trade Area. This endeavour will boost intra-African trade through better harmonisation and coordination, and vastly enhance competitiveness at the industry and enterprise level.

With massive natural and human resource endowments, Africa’s voice needs to be heard. More dialogue is required with African Governments to understand engage with Africa’s priorities. In order to fully capitalise on the abundance of good work ongoing in both the UK and Africa and rise to the occasion, we must establish a specific platform that can bring together the various moving parts, streamlines the UK’s aid, trade and investment ambitions that matches Africa’s priorities and facilitates genuine partnership between the UK and Africa. A UK-Africa Prosperity Commission will fulfil this role by convening ministers and Government officials from the UK and Africa, regional institutions such as the AU, TMEA and CDC Group, and not least private business representatives, along with trade and investment experts from the City.

Through collaboration, innovation and endeavour, we can not only cement our place in the global market, but also support Africa’s continued growth and bring prosperity to both partners.

Greg Hands is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Trade Out of Poverty and former Minister of State for Trade and Investment. Erastus Mwencha is former Secretary-General of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and former Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission

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