The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos has long been the political and business world’s equivalent of the Vanity Fair Oscar party: by invitation only, it is a place to be seen. This year, however, it should also be a place for the world – and especially a Brexit-bound United Kingdom – to reconsider its approach to Africa.
Having faced growing criticism for the event’s perceived elitism in the last few years, the WEF has been trying to revitalize Davos as a jumping-off point for innovation and action for the common good. This year’s theme is “Globalization 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution” – the phrase “Fourth Industrial Revolution” may conjure images of bustling Victorian factories and steam trains chugging through the English countryside, but actually describes the technology-driven, globalization-fueled economic revolution taking place today.
Managing this transformation will be challenging for everyone, but there is no doubt that a UK set to depart from the European Union faces a particularly high degree of uncertainty. As a post-Brexit Britain seeks its place in the world, focusing on Africa would hold considerable promise.
For many Africans, globalization represents opportunity, entrepreneurship, and aspiration. Indeed, globalization is what enabled me to transform a modest Zambian family business into a diverse multinational company – the MBI Group – that is active across three continents in the mining, energy, agriculture, fast-moving consumer goods, and soft-drink industries.
Of course, I am hardly alone. Globalization is part of why, last year, six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies were in Sub-Saharan Africa. The International Monetary Fund expects this region’s GDP growth to average 3.6% in 2019-20.
Many African countries’ economies have long relied on significant natural-resource endowments, along with productive agriculture. Zambia, for example, is the continent’s second-largest producer of copper – a commodity used in many tech products in the UK and in growth markets around the world. In 2018, Zambia mined over 800,000 tons of copper. As energy infrastructure is improved, that figure could soon reach one million tons per year.
Now, African countries are increasingly taking advantage of their strengths – commodities and agriculture – to spur the development of broader business sectors, diversify agriculture, and attract foreign direct investment. African countries are also doing better at leveraging the needs and resources of private local business, the public sector, multilateral institutions, and multinational corporations to secure the huge volumes of funding required to finance investment in roads, ports, communications, and other infrastructure projects.
Thanks to these efforts, Zambia and other African countries have been rising in the ranks of the World Bank’s Doing Business report. This is good news for the rest of the world, which can now engage economically with Africa more easily and effectively than ever. That is why many in Davos will probably be looking to Africa as a key component of their economic strategies in the years ahead.
British leaders should be among them. Last August, Prime Minister Theresa May visited Sub-Saharan Africa – the first such visit by a UK leader in five years – where she pledged that her country would become Africa’s biggest foreign investor within four years. More recently, the UK appointed new trade envoys to some African countries in order to help British business seize trade and investment opportunities on the continent.
Despite these efforts, however, the UK still lags behind other countries – notably China – that pursue more aggressively what they view as key strategic economic alliances in Africa. More must be done to ensure that British business does not miss out.
Davos is a good place to start. British representatives should take time between meetings with their counterparts from traditional powers like Germany and the United States to speak with African business leaders and politicians. Such conversations should continue over the next nine weeks, as the UK approaches the deadline for Brexit.
For years, African leaders have been sending the same message at Davos: Africa is open for business. Now would be an ideal moment for the UK to heed that message.
Zuneid Yousuf is Group Chairman and a director of Zambia’s MBI Group.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.