Why the UK-Africa Investment Summit is an opportunity for Britain

When John Bolton was President Trump’s National Security Adviser, he argued that Africa would soon be home to a new phase of great power rivalries – with the United States, France, China and Russia vying for investment opportunities in the continent. Britain should heed this warning ahead of the UK-Africa Investment Summit.

In the first eight years of last decade alone, China’s top officials made 79 visits to Africa. Emmanuel Macron personally visited the continent nine times since his election victory in 2017. Vladimir Putin turned on the charm last year, in the inaugural Russia-Africa Investment Summit.

All of which makes next week’s UK-Africa Investment summit all the more important. It’s absolutely essential that post-Brexit Britain plays a key investment role in Africa – as we shape our post-EU independent foreign policy and cut bespoke trade deals – but also to act as a break on the worst excesses of the great powers in the region.

This month, International Development Secretary Alok Sharma launched East Africa’s first ‘green bond’ on the Kenyan securities exchange – which will will help Acorn Housing raise local currency to build environmentally-friendly houses for students in Nairobi – a great example of how British soft power can help coordinate action on pressing issues without expending masses of resources or interfering massively abroad.  

By 2050, one in four global consumers will be African. Africa is home to eight of the fifteen fastest growing economies in the world. Yet only 4% of foreign direct investment is actually focussed on the continent – despite British plans to become the largest G7 investor in Africa by 2022. 

The UK-Africa Investment Summit should serve as a springboard, not just to greater investment in Africa, but the start of serious relationships with major African governments. The Department for International Development has made clear that they want to make it easier for African governments to access, and make the most of, trade and investment opportunities – but articulating a post-Brexit, independent foreign policy means more than that, and the UK can now begin to present itself as the central convener on global conversations on the pressing issues of today.

There is a wider picture. European countries are stepping up their presence in Africa with the aim to challenge Islamic terrorism – and stem the flow of migrants from Africa. This is in response to a void left by the United States – which seems so set on withdrawing from the world and its traditional role as geo-political rivals China and Russia expand theirs. At the end of 2018, the US announced plans to reduce 10% of their security presence in the continent.

Stronger relationships with African states is popular amongst the general public in the UK as well. According to British Foreign Policy Group research,  developing greater ties with Commonwealth nations (of which nineteen are African) should be a key priority in British strategic foreign policy. Nearly 9 in every 10 Conservative voters polled argued that the Commonwealth was a good thing (more than any other institution surveyed,) as did 7 in every 10 Labour voters. 

Working towards greater relations with African governments, therefore, may not just be good for the global economy, for trading relationships, and for stymying the threat of terrorism – but it’s in tune with the foreign affairs views of the British public.

Matt Gillow

Matt is the Communications & Events Manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.