LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince Harry hailed Britain as an ideal business partner for Africa on Monday as their country prepares for post-Brexit relations with the world.
But Britain faces tough challenges as it seeks to assert itself on a continent with several of the world’s fastest growing economies, whose young 1.2 billion inhabitants are to double by 2050.
Far fewer of Africa’s 54 heads of state or government attended the first UK-Africa investment summit than the dozens who attended the first Russia-Africa summit last year or the meetings China regularly holds.
The UK Department of International Trade says two-way trade with Africa in the year ending the second quarter of 2019 was $ 46 billion. Meanwhile, Africa’s two-way trade with China, the continent’s best trading partner, was $ 208 billion in 2019.
Johnson told attendees that the conference “is long overdue.” He acknowledged that British officials and companies needed to work to convince African nations to do business with Britain.
“We have no divine right to that business,” he said. “This is a competitive world. You may have suitors” – especially China and Russia.
Britain is due to leave the EU on January 31, and Johnson said Britain would become a free trade “global Britain after Brexit”. He promised that the post-Brexit immigration system would “put people first” and acknowledged a common frustration throughout Africa.
While other global powers, including the Gulf nations and India, have increased their diplomatic and economic presence in Africa, some observers have wondered about the interest of Britain, a former colonizer.
When Theresa May visited Kenya in 2018, even Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta noted that it was the first visit to the East African Economic Center by a British Prime Minister in more than three decades.
Britain said 16 African leaders attended Monday’s summit in London, including the leaders of Nigeria, Congo, Kenya, Egypt, Ghana, Senegal, Malawi, Mozambique, Ivory Coast, Uganda and Rwanda.
“Africa’s wealth is undisputed,” said Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, noting that one in four people in the world by 2050 will be African.
Leaders stressed the need to tackle growing inequality and the continent’s serious need for better infrastructure, especially as millions of people migrate to thriving cities.
Aside from the sluggishness of its two best economies, South Africa and Nigeria, Africa is showing economic momentum, while the newly launched African continental free trade area is gathering steam.
Last year, economic growth slowed in all geographical areas except Africa, the UN reported last week in its annual World Economic Situation and Prospects 2020.
The UN said GDP growth in Africa is expected to reach 3.2% by 2020 and 3.5% by 2021. And 25 African countries are expected to achieve economic growth of at least 5% this year.
The UK should take a broader investment approach to Africa’s growing middle class and increasingly sophisticated consumers, the Overseas Development Institute reported this month. It said more than 80% of Britain’s investment in Africa is focused on mining and financial services, and 30% of investment on the continent goes to a single country, South Africa.
Anna reported from Johannesburg.
Jill Lawless and Cara Anna, Associated Press