Emma Wade-Smith, the trade commissioner for Africa at the UK Department for International Trade, talks to Jason Mitchell about the prospects for UK-Africa trade.

Emma Wade-Smith

Emma Wade-Smith

Q: The UK hosted the UK-Africa Investment Summit in January 2020 in London, with 15 heads of state attending. What were the key achievements of the summit?

A: I think the event created a very strong foundation for us to build upon in the future. The UK is a key trading and investment partner for African countries: UK-Africa trade jumped by 7.5% [in 2019] to £36bn [$45.15bn]. UK investment stock in Africa reached £38bn in 2018, representing a 13.8% increase on the previous year.

The UK wants to strengthen its economic partnerships with African countries, as part of the British government’s drive to ensure that the continent’s growing demand for investment is met by the UK’s expertise and innovation. Programmes from the Department for International Development and the Department for International Trade will boost clean energy supplies, digital networks, and jobs and business opportunities for women, as well as improving trade infrastructure.

This was reflected in commercial deals between UK companies and African partners announced at the summit, which are worth more than £6.5bn, and billions of pounds in additional investment commitments [were made] at the summit, spanning sectors including infrastructure, energy, retail and technology.

These deals will create and sustain jobs, build essential infrastructure and support Africa’s transition to cleaner growth. They mark a new era of trade between the UK and Africa. They include agreements with well-known British firms such as Rolls-Royce, GSK and Diageo, as well as smaller or less well-known companies, such as Aqua Africa and Low Energy Designs.

The UK wants to become the long-term partner of choice for Africa. We want to build this partnership based on trade, investment, shared values and mutual interest. The overall message of prime minister Boris Johnson at the summit was one of excitement and a very strong expectation that we could significantly expand trade and investment between the UK and Africa.

Q: Why is this a good time to improve trade and investment between the UK and Africa?

A: Africa has eight of the world’s 15 fastest growing economies and there is huge demand on the continent for clean, sustainable and innovative investment. As home to some of the world’s most enterprising technology firms and the financial centre of the world in the City of London, the UK is perfectly placed to meet that demand and be the continent’s investment partner of choice.

Africa’s population is set to double to more than 2 billion people by 2050. The UK has much to offer African countries: UK aid is tackling climate change and supporting women entrepreneurs; our tech and digital expertise is helping Africa grow new industries; and the City of London is channelling billions in private investment into Africa, boosting jobs and growth. We have so far agreed to transition four trade agreements covering 11 African countries, representing almost 44% of UK trade with the continent.

Q: The Department for International Trade launched an online deal room in partnership with Asoko Insight ahead of the summit. How successful has the project been so far?

A: The platform is a way of connecting British investors with public and private sector opportunities in Africa. [As of] April 7, 2020, we had received submissions for more than 150 investment projects, while 25 global investment firms have registered on the deal room platform. A total of 225 African enterprises have registered their projects and 66 investors have registered their interest.

The opportunities include African companies seeking financing or equity investors so that they can expand more rapidly. It is still a very active platform despite the various lockdowns that have been put in place during the Covid-19 outbreak. With enormous challenges ahead for our economies, it is more important than ever that these online connections can be made, to ensure that UK investors find the best deals to support business growth in Africa.

Q: What is your outlook for UK trade and investment in Africa once the Covid-19 emergency passes?

A: I think it is still too early to tell the overall impact of the virus. We are carrying out a large number of analyses at the moment about the effects, and we are modelling various scenarios. For example, we are examining what Covid-19’s impact could be on economic growth rates in Africa. Obviously, there were a wide range of investment opportunities for British companies in Africa before the virus outbreak occurred; other investment opportunities could well emerge during the next few months.

I think exciting opportunities across the continent and in many different business sectors will continue to exist for British investors. The UK will be a champion of free trade globally and the City of London will be a significant vehicle for many African companies that want to raise finance.


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