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What Brexit should mean for UK-Africa trade

Last year was truly unforgettable. It is the year we celebrated Mara’s 20th anniversary and launched three new businesses: an infrastructure investment vehicle for Africa; an online jobs portal, Mara Jobs; and a last-mile delivery business, Mara Xpress.

It is also the year we launched the inaugural Ashish J Thakkar Global Entrepreneurship Index 2016 to better understand entrepreneurial environments around the world.

But perhaps what will stick in most people’s memories from 2016 are some of the biggest upsets in US and UK political history — Donald Trump’s shock election victory and the UK’s untimely decision to leave the EU.

Both were decisions that shook the world and stunned even the most astute political pundits.

Whilst I will optimistically give Trump the benefit of the doubt and will keenly observe his transition into office, it is the Brexit decision and its prevailing fallout that concerns me most — in particular, its effect on UK-Africa trade.

 As Theresa May seeks to reclaim the mantle for Britain as an adventurous trading nation in a post-Brexit economy, she has largely focussed on far-flung corners of the globe, such as South Korea, Mexico and China.

However, lessons from the UK’s colonial heritage suggest that most progress thus far has been made in scoping new trade agreements with the likes of Australia and New Zealand.

The UK should be looking a lot closer to home for real opportunities, to a continent where the UK is second only to the US in inward investment, where language and time zones work in its favour and where, for all the wrongs of colonialism, there remains deep affection, connections and familiarity. This continent is Africa.

The UK’s strengths in services, technology, education and pharmaceuticals all sit in Africa’s trading sweet-spot. Despite economic unease across the globe, African economies have remained resilient with job creation across the continent growing at 3.8 percent per year, out-pacing the growth in working age population.

Crucially, African economies have never fully integrated with the EU, traditionally favouring bilateral relationships. Historically, the UK has been at the heart of much of Europe’s engagement with Africa; indeed, London continues to be viewed by some as the capital of the African business community.

Clearly, it is difficult to speak of Africa in such a singular way and we can’t ignore the challenges it has faced in recent months, such as the dip in commodity prices, economic slowdown in China, rising pockets of political instability in the Horn and Southern Africa. But despite all that, Africa remains home to six of the fastest growing economies in the world.

As the UK embarks on a journey of independence away from the EU, it will need to listen carefully to what Africa wants and needs. The UK will look to Boris Johnson to lead the discussions with governments, business leaders and non-government organisations to establish a firm understanding of their trading priorities going forward. In doing so, the UK will not only build itself a new market, it can once again set a benchmark on how best to engage with Africa.

As we look towards 2017, we see that Canada, China, India, Mexico, Singapore and South Korea have already made it very clear that they would welcome talks on future free trade agreements. And the UK has already agreed to start scoping discussions on trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand. Why not then with Africa?

Ashish J Thakkar, founder and CEO of Mara Group

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