LONDON—It was the maiden voyage of “Global Britain,” as Prime Minister Boris Johnson played host to African leaders and representatives in London on Jan. 20. Soon to be free to set its own trade agenda, with Brexit taking effect on Jan. 31, the United Kingdom hopes to project the image of a nation untethered from the rules and regulations of the European Union. Africa—with its rapidly growing populations and economies, rising middle class, and recent ratification of a continentwide free trade agreement—was as good a place as any to start.
With a rate of return on investment that outstrips much of Asia, all of Latin America, and the average of the world’s developed economies, there is little doubting the money to be made in Africa, too. However, a splashy summit and tall talk will not do the trick. Reaching Britain’s goals will require a scale of investment and a humbling of its traditional role as a great power, of which the government gives no guarantee.
Although the prime minister tried not to wade into the waters of nostalgic imperialism at the summit, as he has so often done in the past, Johnson remained committed to the idea that the U.K. can overcome Africa’s “suitors” to become the “obvious partner of choice.” It was a tired recapitulation of an old trope—competition on the continent, a “scramble for Africa”—which reflects neither Africa’s politics nor Britain’s prospects in the 21st century.
For all the ambitions of the Global Britain agenda, however, the summit was a rather muted event. There was no show of force to rival the Russia-Africa Summit last year, when Russian President Vladimir Putin showed off his jets and tanks at his seaside resort in Sochi.
Neither was there any of the grandeur of the most recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2018, when Xi Jinping feted 51 African leaders in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People as he promised world-historical transformation—“The ocean is vast because it rejects no rivers,” Xi prophesied of the opportunities China and Africa shared. Nor did it seem to show the same significance of the United States’ last summit in 2014, when 37 African heads of state gathered in Washington as then-President Barack Obama advanced a range of health, security, and investment initiatives while knocking Chinese intentions on the continent.But it was still a productive day for the 13 African leaders who made the frosty trek to a blocky InterContinental Hotel on the Greenwich Peninsula, an industrial stretch of land in southeast London. Indeed, it was likely all the more productive for focusing on trade and investment, rather than the conflict and contestation that have consumed so many summits as of late. “The world needs to be seeing Africa less as a problem and more as an opportunity,” said Gyude Moore, Liberia’s former public works minister and a fellow at the Center for Global Development.
The crowd in London seemed to agree. “Let us seize the opportunities that are before us here today,” Johnson told the representatives of the governments and corporations in attendance. His goals, though pacific, were still ambitious. Within two years, Britain aims to become the largest G-7 investor in Africa—a feat that will require a 75 percent increase in capital invested to top the United States and a more than 90 percent increase to top France. To be sure, this goal is largely, if not entirely, implausible.
The prime minister cannot command the private sector to deploy the necessary $16 billion to Africa in order to achieve his ambitions there, and it is highly unlikely that the Department for International Development (which the prime minister is considering closing) would cough up 112 percent of its annual aid budget either. That French President Emmanuel Macron is equally eager to reshape French-African relations and will be hosting a summit of his own this summer makes Britain’s goal even less achievable.
Nevertheless, the U.K.-Africa sessions succeeded in broadening the traditional horizons of political summitry from its focus on conflict and development to sustainable finance, infrastructure, and clean energy. This was a sure step in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done.
The first task, said Emma Wade-Smith, the British trade commissioner for Africa, is diversification. Given the concentration of British capital in a few select—and underperforming—countries and industries, this much is long overdue.
At present, 30 percent of the U.K.’s foreign direct investment in Africa, $15 billion in 2018, is located in South Africa. The problem is not the sum; it’s the proportion. “What we want to do is increase the flow of investments so we can see the numbers that we have in South Africa replicated elsewhere around the continent,” Wade-Smith told Foreign Policy.
It makes sense that British investments would be so prominent in South Africa, a prized former colony where old interests and networks have endured and which continues to rank as the largest and one of the most developed countries in Africa. But given that the continent contains 27 of the world’s 50 fastest-growing economies, and that South Africa—with its 0.8 percent growth rate, intractable political problems, and ongoing battle against corruption—is not among them, opportunities to diversify would seem to abound.
Some of these lie within the U.K.’s traditional field of investment, such as Kenya, which has an economy less than one-third the size of South Africa’s and development scores that trail as well. Nevertheless, Kenya has become a cornerstone of the East African economy, a gateway to the Indian Ocean that represents 33 percent of East Africa’s rapidly growing market and boasts a growth rate of 6 percent. It is hard for any African state to top Kenya’s economic profile, but still the country receives a paltry 2 percent of the U.K.’s investment in the continent.
[pullquote_left]It is hard for any African state to top Kenya’s economic profile, but still the country receives a paltry 2 percent of the U.K.’s investment in the continent.[/pullquote_left]
This shouldn’t be the case, said Nicolle Richards, the head of investor relations at Lendable Marketplace, a financial services firm in Nairobi. “There’s a lot of opportunity here,” Richards argued, “and not just for development organizations.”
This much has grown increasingly clear in the case of Kenya’s technology sector, what some have taken to calling the “Silicon Savannah.” Last year, Nairobi’s burgeoning start-up scene attracted $149 million in funding, leading the field of the African tech market, which brought in a total of $492 million.
Contributing to the industry’s success were profitable, scalable start-ups such as Lori Systems, an “Uber for trucking,” as Richards described it, which is cutting the sky-high cost of logistics in Kenya by providing trucks and truck drivers to suppliers at the click of a button—and wooing a number of Chinese, American, and Nigerian investors in the process. There is also M-Kopa, an impressive pay-as-you-go solar energy company that has been able to deliver affordable electricity to hundreds of thousands of Kenyans through a savvy mobile payment system.
Kenya’s highly advanced financial technology (fintech) sector, where simple mobile payments are used for personal transactions, utility bills, and much more, makes this app and many others like it possible, not to mention profitable. ITIKI, a drought-forecasting start-up that aims to improve crop yields and prepare farmers for the scourge of climate change, has become operational in Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa as well.
“People are very optimistic about what’s going on because start-ups here are solving real problems that no other businesses are trying to solve,” Richards said. But for all the opportunities on offer—in logistics and energy, fintech, health tech, and more—access to capital remains a key concern. The cash shortage is only partially sensible. To wary investors’ credit, there have been few initial public offerings or acquisitions for Kenyan start-ups, meaning that there is no reliable route for earning returns. However, the pace of innovation and the expanse of the market speak for themselves. More than anything else, exposure to the Silicon Savannah and Africa’s tech scene appears to be the limiting factor.
As a result, Nairobi is a logical destination for British investors, and a new government initiative hopes to bridge the capital gap. “Go Global Africa,” launched last year, invites Kenyan, Nigerian, and South African start-ups to compete for a five-day training and networking session in the U.K. Its participants have already included leading lights such as Muthoni Masinde, the founder of ITIKI. However, without any new investment pledges, and with only the annual competition on Go Global’s agenda, it is clear that the U.K. will have to redouble its efforts if it expects to make any real progress.
The situation is much the same on the other side of the continent, in Ghana, where a different British initiative seeks to assist a local agricultural renaissance. Since taking office in 2017, President Nana Akufo-Addo has made a push for greater agricultural productivity, sending thousands of government officials across the country on motorbikes to work with the country’s farmers. Given that agricultural yields in sub-Saharan Africa are just 20 to 30 percent of what they could be—due to the fact that just 4 to 6 percent of agricultural land is irrigated and best practices on which fertilizers and seeds to use are not always implemented—the upside potential is exceptional.
A new initiative of the British High Commission in Ghana, the Agricultural Transformation Programme, which was announced at the summit, hopes to advance this productivity project and benefit from its rewards. Boasting a decently diversified, high-tech, multibillion-dollar industry of its own, Britain should be well placed to promote Ghana’s agricultural agenda.
Boris Johnson’s New Scramble for Africa