Why Chuka Umunna is right about UK Business Opportunities in Africa

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chuka_umunna_africa_business.jpgIf you have been following our blog you will know that I am over in Ghana developing our understanding of business in West Africa. As part of the trip we are involved in a UKTI – London Chamber of Commerce Trade Mission which stopped in Lagos, Nigeria and then onto Accra, Ghana, where we joined the group. The mission is being led by the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna.

It was good to speak with Chuka yesterday and understand his thoughts on the business opportunities in Africa. We both clearly agree that Africa, and West Africa in particular, are booming and there are plenty of opportunities for British businesses wanting to trade or set up operations over here.

However, the big problem is, most UK businesses are not looking in this direction. As Chuka warned in a speech delivered in Lagos, businesses are focusing too much on the glamour of the BRIC nations.

A lot has been talked about the Bric economies and the vast opportunities they offer. And they do. But this must not be at the expense of talking about Africa – what it offers today and potential that it has for tomorrow.”

Even within the BRIC nations, Britain lagged behind as other more daring and aggressive countries invested and grabbed opportunities and are now harvesting the fruits of their labour. Chuka is 100% right in that we are in danger of doing the same here in Africa.

Britain is in danger of missing out on the huge opportunities here in Africa. I was very struck by the warning given last year by former president Olusegun Obasanjo on how, in relation to Africa, Britain risks falling behind and how the energetic approach of the Chinese, the Indians and even the Brazilians risks trumping the strong historical and cultural ties we have. There can be no room for complacency.”

Now is the time to invest in Africa. It is booming. It is full of energy. It is looking to the world to do business. If the UK is not careful we are going to miss the boat. The Turks, Indians, Chinese and Brazilians are investing heavily in Africa already. Where is the UK?

Yesterday we sat with the Ghana Chamber of Commerce. It was a real wake up call and it really hit home how far behind we are in the UK in terms of exporting our businesses, our services, our products and our brand. It’s almost as if the UK believes the world will come to us. Sorry but this isn’t the reality of global business.

The President of the Chamber illustrated how far behind we are, in Ghana at least; a country with strong ties to the UK on many levels. They want to do business with us, but we are not doing anything to make it easy. The Turks on the other hand send one trade delegation a week – yes a week. The Chinese we all know are all over Africa. The Indians are investing heavily in building business links.

We were told that these countries pay for Ghanaians to go to their countries, all expenses paid, to be trained in technology, manufacturing, services and the like. When they return to Ghana, the link is cemented. Those people will take their business back to Turkey, India or China as they made the effort to invest in them. “Where is the UK?” said the President.

One very simple area where we are shooting ourselves in the foot is with visas. We were given the example of a very wealthy Ghanaian businessman who was denied a visa to come to the UK to do business. Apparently the Home Office even questioned the authenticity of his bank statements! Although immigration into the UK has some issues, why are we denying people who want to work with us entry into our country? It’s short-sighted. This must change.

Ghanaians look to the UK as the pinnacle of education and training. Yet the number of them coming to the UK to study is being limited due to expense. Education in the UK is expensive and we do nothing to support them, unlike in other countries where they are given grants and support. This is clever, very clever. Ghanaians are now going to places like Russia, India and China to study because their governments are making it easier for them. They are investing in them. What do they get in return? Well someone loyal to that country, who will wax lyrical about them on their return and do business with them in the future.

There were plenty of other examples cited as to why the UK is lagging so far behind. In short, in my opinion, the UK is being complacent. We have to change tactics; we have to change our approach.

As far as I am concerned, Africa is where it is happening and where the future lies. Now is the time to invest. Now is the time to do business here. In 5 years time it will be too late. The UK economy is not in a great place – Africa can help us.

We need to invest in Africa; and that is why Chuka is right.

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