Boris Johnson’s New Scramble for Africa

The prime minister’s vision of a “Global Britain” after Brexit will only succeed if he abandons imperial nostalgia in favor of practical investment in the continent’s fast-growing economies.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts African leaders and senior government representatives during the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London on Jan.20.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts African leaders and senior government representatives during the UK-Africa Investment Summit in London on Jan.20. Ben STANSALL -WPA Pool/Getty Images

LONDON—It was the maiden voyage of “Global Britain,” as Prime Minister Boris Johnson played host to African leaders and representatives in London on Jan. 20. Soon to be free to set its own trade agenda, with Brexit taking effect on Jan. 31, the United Kingdom hopes to project the image of a nation untethered from the rules and regulations of the European Union. Africa—with its rapidly growing populations and economies, rising middle class, and recent ratification of a continentwide free trade agreement—was as good a place as any to start.

With a rate of return on investment that outstrips much of Asia, all of Latin America, and the average of the world’s developed economies, there is little doubting the money to be made in Africa, too. However, a splashy summit and tall talk will not do the trick. Reaching Britain’s goals will require a scale of investment and a humbling of its traditional role as a great power, of which the government gives no guarantee.

Although the prime minister tried not to wade into the waters of nostalgic imperialism at the summit, as he has so often done in the past, Johnson remained committed to the idea that the U.K. can overcome Africa’s “suitors” to become the “obvious partner of choice.” It was a tired recapitulation of an old trope—competition on the continent, a “scramble for Africa”—which reflects neither Africa’s politics nor Britain’s prospects in the 21st century. ­­

For all the ambitions of the Global Britain agenda, however, the summit was a rather muted event. There was no show of force to rival the Russia-Africa Summit last year, when Russian President Vladimir Putin showed off his jets and tanks at his seaside resort in Sochi. Neither was there any of the grandeur of the most recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2018, when Xi Jinping feted 51 African leaders in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People as he promised world-historical transformation—“The ocean is vast because it rejects no rivers,” Xi prophesied of the opportunities China and Africa shared. Nor did it seem to show the same significance of the United States’ last summit in 2014, when 37 African heads of state gathered in Washington as then-President Barack Obama advanced a range of health, security, and investment initiatives while knocking Chinese intentions on the continent.

But it was still a productive day for the 13 African leaders who made the frosty trek to a blocky InterContinental Hotel on the Greenwich Peninsula, an industrial stretch of land in southeast London. Indeed, it was likely all the more productive for focusing on trade and investment, rather than the conflict and contestation that have consumed so many summits as of late. “The world needs to be seeing Africa less as a problem and more as an opportunity,” said Gyude Moore, Liberia’s former public works minister and a fellow at the Center for Global Development.

The crowd in London seemed to agree. “Let us seize the opportunities that are before us here today,” Johnson told the representatives of the governments and corporations in attendance. His goals, though pacific, were still ambitious. Within two years, Britain aims to become the largest G-7 investor in Africa—a feat that will require a 75 percent increase in capital invested to top the United States and a more than 90 percent increase to top France. To be sure, this goal is largely, if not entirely, implausible.

The prime minister cannot command the private sector to deploy the necessary $16 billion to Africa in order to achieve his ambitions there, and it is highly unlikely that the Department for International Development (which the prime minister is considering closing) would cough up 112 percent of its annual aid budget either. That French President Emmanuel Macron is equally eager to reshape French-African relations and will be hosting a summit of his own this summer makes Britain’s goal even less achievable.

Nevertheless, the U.K.-Africa sessions succeeded in broadening the traditional horizons of political summitry from its focus on conflict and development to sustainable finance, infrastructure, and clean energy. This was a sure step in the right direction, but there is still much work to be done.

Within two years, Britain aims to become the largest G-7 investor in Africa—a feat that will require a 75 percent increase in capital invested to top the United States and a more than 90 percent increase to top France. To be sure, this goal is largely, if not entirely, implausible.

The first task, said Emma Wade-Smith, the British trade commissioner for Africa, is diversification. Given the concentration of British capital in a few select—and underperforming—countries and industries, this much is long overdue.

At present, 30 percent of the U.K.’s foreign direct investment in Africa, $15 billion in 2018, is located in South Africa. The problem is not the sum; it’s the proportion. “What we want to do is increase the flow of investments so we can see the numbers that we have in South Africa replicated elsewhere around the continent,” Wade-Smith told Foreign Policy.

It makes sense that British investments would be so prominent in South Africa, a prized former colony where old interests and networks have endured and which continues to rank as the largest and one of the most developed countries in Africa. But given that the continent contains 27 of the world’s 50 fastest-growing economies, and that South Africa—with its 0.8 percent growth rate, intractable political problems, and ongoing battle against corruption—is not among them, opportunities to diversify would seem to abound.

Some of these lie within the U.K.’s traditional field of investment, such as Kenya, which has an economy less than one-third the size of South Africa’s and development scores that trail as well. Nevertheless, Kenya has become a cornerstone of the East African economy, a gateway to the Indian Ocean that represents 33 percent of East Africa’s rapidly growing market and boasts a growth rate of 6 percent. It is hard for any African state to top Kenya’s economic profile, but still the country receives a paltry 2 percent of the U.K.’s investment in the continent.

This shouldn’t be the case, said Nicolle Richards, the head of investor relations at Lendable Marketplace, a financial services firm in Nairobi. “There’s a lot of opportunity here,” Richards argued, “and not just for development organizations.”

This much has grown increasingly clear in the case of Kenya’s technology sector, what some have taken to calling the “Silicon Savannah.” Last year, Nairobi’s burgeoning start-up scene attracted $149 million in funding, leading the field of the African tech market, which brought in a total of $492 million.

Contributing to the industry’s success were profitable, scalable start-ups such as Lori Systems, an “Uber for trucking,” as Richards described it, which is cutting the sky-high cost of logistics in Kenya by providing trucks and truck drivers to suppliers at the click of a button—and wooing a number of Chinese, American, and Nigerian investors in the process. There is also M-Kopa, an impressive pay-as-you-go solar energy company that has been able to deliver affordable electricity to hundreds of thousands of Kenyans through a savvy mobile payment system.

Kenya’s highly advanced financial technology (fintech) sector, where simple mobile payments are used for personal transactions, utility bills, and much more, makes this app and many others like it possible, not to mention profitable. ITIKI, a drought-forecasting start-up that aims to improve crop yields and prepare farmers for the scourge of climate change, has become operational in Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa as well.

“People are very optimistic about what’s going on because start-ups here are solving real problems that no other businesses are trying to solve,” Richards said. But for all the opportunities on offer—in logistics and energy, fintech, health tech, and more—access to capital remains a key concern. The cash shortage is only partially sensible. To wary investors’ credit, there have been few initial public offerings or acquisitions for Kenyan start-ups, meaning that there is no reliable route for earning returns. However, the pace of innovation and the expanse of the market speak for themselves. More than anything else, exposure to the Silicon Savannah and Africa’s tech scene appears to be the limiting factor.

As a result, Nairobi is a logical destination for British investors, and a new government initiative hopes to bridge the capital gap. “Go Global Africa,” launched last year, invites Kenyan, Nigerian, and South African start-ups to compete for a five-day training and networking session in the U.K. Its participants have already included leading lights such as Muthoni Masinde, the founder of ITIKI. However, without any new investment pledges, and with only the annual competition on Go Global’s agenda, it is clear that the U.K. will have to redouble its efforts if it expects to make any real progress.

It is clear that the U.K. will have to redouble its efforts if it expects to make any real progress.

The situation is much the same on the other side of the continent, in Ghana, where a different British initiative seeks to assist a local agricultural renaissance. Since taking office in 2017, President Nana Akufo-Addo has made a push for greater agricultural productivity, sending thousands of government officials across the country on motorbikes to work with the country’s farmers. Given that agricultural yields in sub-Saharan Africa are just 20 to 30 percent of what they could be—due to the fact that just 4 to 6 percent of agricultural land is irrigated and best practices on which fertilizers and seeds to use are not always implemented—the upside potential is exceptional.

A new initiative of the British High Commission in Ghana, the Agricultural Transformation Programme, which was announced at the summit, hopes to advance this productivity project and benefit from its rewards. Boasting a decently diversified, high-tech, multibillion-dollar industry of its own, Britain should be well placed to promote Ghana’s agricultural agenda.

It certainly possesses the experience, technology, and capital to assist Ghana, by funding the government’s own campaign, educating farmers directly, providing and subsidizing proper seeds, or helping to irrigate the fields. However, it’s not quite clear if and how Britain intends to do any of this. The Agricultural Transformation Programme’s mandate, to “develop new agriculture markets and climate resilience,” is bold but vague. Its machinations are, too. Neither the Department for International Development nor the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could offer any information on how the program works, how it is run, or how it is funded.

Nevertheless, the direction of the pivot is promising. As was Johnson’s pledge to forbid further investment in coal-related projects. Such a sectoral shift will be important for the U.K. given that 51 percent of its investments in Africa are currently concentrated in extractive industries, according to the Overseas Development Institute.

It is also a laudable decision that cuts against the grain of some Chinese investments, which are supporting the construction of 13 coal plants in Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Madagascar—and leaving public displeasure in their wake. It helps, too, that Britain’s pivot will coincide with the environmentally conscious progress the African Union hopes to achieve by 2063.

There is good reason to believe that the U.K. can diversify away from extractive industries and in line with the AU. “The world is changing, the U.K. economy is changing, and our expertise and experience are well beyond mining, oil, and gas,” said Wade-Smith, the trade commissioner.

One such alternative area of expertise is infrastructure. To be sure, the industry presents its fair share of challenges—China being chief among them. No country can match the money Beijing pours into the continent, having pledged to spend $60 billion in the three years to 2021, and no one can beat the excess capacity and low bids Chinese firms have to offer. Nor, moreover, could any one nation construct, all at once, multiple railways in Nigeria, the world’s largest dam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hundreds of miles of roads in Ghana, and sports stadiums in Rwanda, to name a few.

However, not all hope is lost for the U.K., said Moore, the former Liberian public works minister. When Moore was in office, a clear and lucrative opportunity for the U.K. emerged in the area of supervision. “One of the big problems we’ve had with Chinese construction is the quality of what is delivered,” Moore said. The collapse of a Chinese-built bridge in Kenya, a road in Zambia, and a hospital in Angola all attest to this.

To offset this risk, Moore would call on U.K.-based firms for the less exciting but equally important work of quality control. IMC Worldwide, for example, a small firm based in southern England, has provided expert assistance to a handful of countries, including Liberia, as they—or the Chinese—build their roads. Finding niches like these may not match the ambitions of the “Global Britain” agenda, and identifying new ways to aid Chinese investments is certainly not what the summit had in mind, but it may be all Britain has to offer.

The opportunity puts Britain in an uncomfortable position. By any estimation, working alongside China is not the preferred outcome of a push into African industry. In his opening remarks, Johnson made this clear as he sounded off on China, castigating its “extraordinarily one-sided terms” and its “vast imported workforce.” (Experts have called into question the latter accusation, with recent research finding African workers to constitute upwards of 85 percent of labor on Chinese projects.)

But Britain may not have much of a choice on the matter. “The U.K. always had advantages but never actually paid attention to them until the rise of China and China’s domination of trade and commerce,” Moore said. Now those advantages, though still present, are slipping away. A zero-sum push into Africa, in which Britain sees itself as a competitor in a latter-day scramble for the continent, determined to work against rather than with Africa’s other allies and investors, threatens to put the U.K.’s advantages to rest for good.

At one time or another, Global Britain will have to reckon with its outsized ambition—in Europe, in Africa, and around the world. It will do no good to cast aspersions on Britain’s potential partners in Africa, the Chinese, or any of the continent’s other “suitors,” as the prime minister said in his opening remarks. In the 21st century, such a strategy of unnecessarily opposing China surely bodes poorly for Britain’s economic prospects in Africa and elsewhere.

A Global Britain, loosely defined, remains possible, but a humbling will have to come first. Although a recommitment to its relationship with African countries is important, the U.K. cannot reasonably expect to out-invest the United States and France or outbid China. Nor should it assume that half-measures and shortcuts, such as the Go Global tech campaign and the Agricultural Transformation Programme, will be able to grow and sustain ties to the continent.

The U.K. government can’t assert, as it did at the summit, that some 54 distinct African countries should select Britain—and Britain alone—to be their partner of choice. Casting its relations with African states as a matter of geopolitical competition, and reproducing fading memories of imperial glory in the process, will not deliver results.

Back in his days as a journalist, Johnson memorably wrote of the African continent: “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.” Fortunately, the revanchist rhetoric has since disappeared. Now the outlook underlying it should, too.

Stephen Paduano is a journalist based in London, and an associate of the IDEAS Institute at the London School of Economics.

 Twitter: @StephenPaduano

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