‘Forget Live Aid and See Africa’s Business Potential’

Earlier this month, as our MPs in the UK returned to Westminster to grapple over what ‘Brexit’ really means, over 4,000 miles away in Kigali, a number of pioneering British businesses were already reshaping Britain’s trade policy, writes Lord Dolar Popat – the UK Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Uganda and Rwanda.

The Global African Investment Summit (TGAIS), an annual event run by a British company that started in London in 2014 has, for the first time, located in its continent of choice.

The Summit was designed to ‘demystify’ Africa and bring together Africa’s leading politicians with outside investors. This year’s event was hosted by President Kagame of Rwanda.

Dozens of Cabinet Ministers – including President Museveni of Uganda – gathered along with 900 business delegates from across the globe to shape the next generation of economic growth across Africa.

As the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Uganda and Rwanda, I attended along with thirty British businesses from key economic sectors including finance, infrastructure, energy and business services.

The tone of the Summit reflected the changing emphasis of most African Governments; the days of Dictators, conflict and aid are over; the emphasis is now very much placed on making Africa a competitive and desirable place to do business.

Economic opportunities are everywhere in Africa. The perception many hold of a continent in need of aid to survive and countries barely able to function are painfully out of date; instead those who visit see an entire continent on the rise.

President Kagame in his opening remarks to the Summit talked not of ‘development and aid’ but instead about the need to improve the ease of doing business; the importance of speeding up decision-making in Government and the importance of holding institutions to account.

East Africa is a new frontier for international businesses. The East African Community, pulling together five countries in the region, is liberalising trade policy by promoting tariff-free trade amongst its membership and the free movement of people.

The scale of change is unprecedented. There has never been a better time to do business in Africa and those firms who are already established on the ground report that they simply can’t keep up with the levels of demand.

The British businesses attending the Summit have been swamped with requests for meetings, business proposals and opportunities for expansion. Britain’s reputation for top quality goods and services gives us a competitive advantage over almost every other firm.

My role as Trade Envoy is to help UK Plc; both by promoting the opportunities in Rwanda to British businesses and to support those working in the country with diplomatic support.

Rwanda has a very realistic aim of becoming a middle-income country within the next decade. It’s one of the safest countries I’ve ever been to, it has the third highest rating in Africa for ‘ease of doing business’ and has a Government determined to welcome outside investors. It is, in short, a perfect place to do business.

The biggest barrier holding British firms back from these opportunities is simple: their own perceptions of what business in Africa is like. Or rather misperceptions of Africa; too many still seem to think of Africa as the place of 1985’s Live Aid concert, rather than the thriving entrepreneurial location it has become.

As the politicians in the UK continued to argue over access to the single-market, in Kigali 30 British businesses were showing us what our future post-Brexit looks like: global, trade-focused and entrepreneurial.

We’ll see how many more British firms have realised this next year, when the Summit relocates to Kampala.

Lord Dolar Popat is the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Uganda and Rwanda. Before becoming a Life Peer in 2010, he had a 35-year career in business.

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