City Matters: How British businesses are building a better world in Africa today

Fiona Woolf
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The president of the African Development Bank (AfDB) Donald Kaberuka (Source: Getty)
This week, I am on another of my overseas visits, this time to South and East Africa. I have worked in Africa throughout my professional career, and it is a continent close to my heart. So this visit is particularly exciting for me.

Over the last few years, the narrative surrounding the “rise of Africa” has sometimes seemed more aspirational than grounded in reality. But visiting South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in 2014, it is clear to me that this is no longer the case.

The desire by British businesses to invest in Africa is clear: the UK provides 60 per cent of all foreign direct investment in Tanzania, bilateral trade between the UK and Uganda reached £81.5m in 2013, and more than 100 UK companies now operate in Uganda. On my visit, I will be accompanied by a business delegation of over 30 companies eager to do new business in Africa.

Too often, we in the UK characterise our relationship with Africa simply in terms of aid, and think only of crushing poverty and charitable relief. But this is an outdated and one-sided view. It is true that poverty still exists, and that infrastructure is often inadequate. But out of these circumstances have arisen highly successful business models, some of which, such as the Kenyan mobile payments system M:Pesa, are now considering expansion into parts of Europe.

There is a truly bilateral trade relationship between the UK and Africa. And the more that the UK engages in Africa, the richer this relationship will become. Investment by British companies in crucial African assets such as infrastructure, legal services, schools, renewables and project management will not only provide UK firms with challenging and interesting work, and African countries with enhanced capacity. It will also lay the foundation for the next generation of African entrepreneurs.

There are many opportunities for UK companies to become involved in mining, oil and gas, technology and construction in Africa. However, the most important investment is in people: widening access to skills and knowledge, and harnessing energy and talent in order to build better businesses, and a better society. This is why I am so passionate about banging the drum for UK investment in Africa.

British business is committed to building capacity for local partners – combining UK global expertise with that of those on the ground. For example, the Law Society of England and Wales, of which I used to be chair, is running masterclasses and workshops in the three East African countries I am visiting as part of my programme. It is widely recognised that a strong legal system and a stable climate of governance are crucial to attracting inward investment, so this is vital work to benefit all partners.

I hope that my visit will shine a spotlight on the many opportunities in this region, and help the UK business community to see Africa with new eyes. We must all take a long-term view if we are to meet the challenges, and seize the opportunities, of tomorrow’s world.