Unshackled by European Union membership, Britain will be able to “turbo-charge” relations with Africa after Brexit by striking trade and business deals across the continent, the International Development Secretary has said.
Alok Sharma told the Telegraph that an unprecedented summit with African leaders in London next week offers Britain an important opportunity to flex its financial heft in the emerging world’s final frontier.
Amid warnings that British influence in a region it once dominated is on the wane, Boris Johnson’s vision of a “Global Britain” will be put to the test for the first time since his election victory in December when he hosts the inaugural UK-Africa Investment Summit on Monday.
The Prime Minister will seek to demonstrate British ambitions in a once overlooked part of the world by delivering the principal address of the summit himself.
Visiting political and business leaders will also be treated to the best of British pomp as they attend a reception at Buckingham Palace as guests of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Such pageantry is not the guarantee of success it once was, however.
No longer the supplicants of yore, African leaders have grown used to being flattered in the palaces of the mighty as old and new global powers compete for influence on a continent whose strategic value is higher than at any time since the Cold War.
Distracted by Brexit, Britain – so prominent in the first Scramble for Africa during the 19th century – is in danger of being eclipsed in the second by rivals and allies alike.
While Mr Sharma says he hopes the summit will lead to “further investment and trade between Africa and the UK” it is merely the latest in a series of such events.
Last October, Russia played host to 43 African heads of state and government in the same month that France hosted its second annual “Ambition Africa” business summit.
In 2018, China welcomed 51 of the continent’s 54 leaders, one more than the United States four years earlier. So far, just 15 have confirmed they will be in London next week, among them Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African president.
Britain may be viewed by some as a laggard in the race, but Mr Sharma says that Britain’s strengths – from its record as a leading source of private investment on the continent to the attractions of the City of London – will ensure that it remains competitive.
“One of the things I want to do is to turbo-charge relations with growth economies and if you look at Africa, eight of the 15 fastest growing economies in the world are now based in Africa,” he said during a pre-summit visit to Kenya this week.
“There is an opportunity out there for us to grasp and I think events like the summit will be a catalyst for that.”
While sub-Saharan Africa is still the world’s poorest region, few see it as “the hopeless continent” any more.
Mineral and energy wealth aside, Africa again matters strategically. China, which has lent Africa billions of pounds to upgrade its infrastructure, and Russia both view the continent as an area in which to challenge America’s global hegemony.
Despite being among Africa’s biggest donors, Britain has struggled to leverage aid into tangible influence as much as others, taking on a less visible role than allies like France, which has sent thousands of troops to protect the Sahel region from Islamist insurgents.
Although often active behind the scenes, Britain has not taken the lead in resolving an African conflict since Tony Blair’s military intervention to end Sierra Leone’s civil war nearly 20 years ago.
Mr Sharma speaks more of financial opportunity than political influence, however. By 2050, he notes, Africa’s rapidly growing population means that a quarter of the world’s consumers will be African.
Although he insists that Britain will honour its commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of its income on foreign aid, he is keener to emphasise the role the private sector can play in helping Africa develop.
“We want to help countries ultimately to become self-sustaining,” he said. “That has to come through economic development.”
Mr Sharma’s visit to Kenya seemed designed to underline that shift in emphasis.
There were no visits to refugee camps or slum clinics. Instead he opened trading at the Nairobi Stock Exchange as it launched its first green bond, developed with support from the Department for International Development (DfID).
He also toured a beer factory in the city of Kisumu operated by the British distiller Diageo and met rural Kenyans enjoying low-cost electricity for the first time after buying solar panels from Azuri Technologies, a Cambridge-based company.
Both companies have benefitted from British government support, Azuri through tax breaks and preferential borrowing from DFiD-backed development funds, Diageo because the farmers who provide the sorghum for its beer had been trained and supported with British aid.
Diageo’s Kisumu plant, opened in 2018, has created 40,000 farming jobs. It is an example of how the private sector and foreign aid can work together to lift Africans out of poverty, says Jane Karuku, managing director of Kenya Breweries, Diageo’s local subsidiary.
“There is an ecosystem in which everyone can be useful,” she said. “The private sector are the ones who can generate jobs but aid and government grants can be used to create capacity, for example by training farmers in best husbandry.”
Mr Sharma, who declined to comment on media reports that DfID could soon be brought under the control of Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, also used the trip to announce £45m in additional funding to boost infrastructure investment in Africa.
The focus on infrastructure represents a move into a field dominated by China and will be seen by some as evidence that Britain is growing more ambitious in Africa.
Nonetheless, it must be seen in context.
Britain’s offer, which will be focused on providing expertise in the development of green and sustainable cities, amounts to less than 0.1 percent of the £47bn in additional infrastructure financing that China pledged to African states in 2018.
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