The announcement before Christmas that there was to be yet another Band Aid single was met with derision in large parts of Africa. While the intentions behind the release were most certainly good, it was seen as yet another example of Africa being portrayed as helpless and in need of western support.
Sadly, this view is all too prominent. Here in Britain, too many still see Africa as a continent living in some sort of dark age, with countries and people unable to help themselves. This attitude pervades our businesses as well – I still hear the fear when I suggest exporting in Africa to business leaders.
Yet the situation on the ground is often radically different to these (mis)perceptions. Late last year, I had the honour of representing Her Majesty’s Government at the funeral of President Sata in Zambia. While the visit was to mark a sad occasion, I once again came away from visiting my home continent enthusiastic about Africa’s future and the role Britain can play in it.
Africa is developing at an unbelievably fast rate. Six out of the world’s top 10 growing economies are in Africa – the second fastest region in the world. 52 cities have a population exceeding 1m. There are 316m more mobile phone subscribers than in 2000. Every time I visit, it is hard to recognise the continent from the one I visited last time, let alone the one I grew up in.
“Despite our historic links with the continent, our ‘partner of choice’ status has been taken by China”
Yet at a time when the Government is committed to rebalancing Britain’s economy towards manufacturing and exports, and the eurozone continues to falter, too many British businesses remain reticent about the trade opportunities Africa offers. We have to change this.
Britain has an excellent reputation in large parts of Africa, particularly in the countries that are part of the Commonwealth. English is the official language across more than half of Africa, and the legislative, legal and commercial systems are often based on our own. Every time I meet an African leader they talk about their demand for British products (highly regarded for their quality), but inevitably follow up with: ‘But we never see you guys here!’
Despite our historic links with the continent, our ‘partner of choice’ status has been taken by China. Chinese trade with the continent was over $200bn last year (ours was less than $35bn). The Chinese have invested in roads and power stations, generating goodwill in the process and opening up many markets for their own goods.
Others are now wising up to Africa’s potential. Last year, President Obama held the first ever US-Africa summit and a Japanese prime minister visited sub-Saharan Africa for the first time in a decade. In a continent where there is so much goodwill for Britain, we simply cannot afford to be left behind.
During my visit to Lusaka, I did see some positive signs for Britain. We’ve recently opened a UKTI office there which will help to promote UK-Zambia trade. Our diplomatic team there was strong and is soon to establish a British Chamber of Commerce in the city. I also met a large number of local business people on my trip, all of whom were eager to do more trade with us.
Britain’s share of trade with Africa is now less than 4%; not that long ago it used to be over 25%. We can reverse this trend, but to do so will require commitment from our Chambers of Commerce, investment and calculated risk-taking from our businesses, support from the Government and UKTI, and an acknowledgement that modern Africa is more diverse and more advanced than we’ve been thinking.
President Obama said last year that “young Africans are less interested in aid and more interested in how they can create opportunity through business”. This is absolutely right. UK businesses need to respond to this, grab the economic initiative and play a leading role in Africa’s future growth. Otherwise we’ll be left behind by the countries that see Africa as it is, rather than how they fear it is.
Lord Popat is a Government Whip and Conservative peer