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UK-African Investment Summit

Volume 837: debated on Thursday 18 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government why the UK-African Investment Summit scheduled for April has been postponed, and when they plan to hold it.

My Lords, the Government are committed to maximising the success of the next UK-African Investment Summit. The successful 2020 summit laid foundations for new partnerships between the UK and African nations, based on trade, investment, shared values and mutual interest. The Government are committed to building on that, ensuring attendance from Governments and British and African businesses eager to harness the benefits of our trading relationships. New dates will be announced in due course.

My Lords, I have heard the reasons why the summit was postponed. When this date was chosen, it was known that there were multiple elections this year, which was an excuse for why it was changed, and that there were other conferences around this time, particularly between Europe and Africa. Until recently, those plans were going ahead, and the Minister seems to imply that they still are. However, if the UK is indeed to engage fully with a continent of the future, which he indicates that he wishes to—obviously, the middle classes there are growing rapidly, and the EU, the US, Russia and China are fully engaged—then postponement, or, in effect, cancellation, does not really show the United Kingdom in the right light, does it?

We are committed to this event, but it should not be seen as the only action we are taking. It is part of a continuous engagement with African businesses and with British businesses that want to trade more in Africa, and to build on the success of the recent past. She is right: by 2050, 2 billion people will live on that continent, half of them under 25. They will all want the kind of lifestyle that they see happening elsewhere, and we want to assist that through trade. The UK is the largest investor in African countries by investment stock. Direct investment flows from the UK to the continent were more than £2.4 billion in 2022, and we want to see the increases in bilateral trading continue in future years.

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that an increasing number of African countries are showing an interest in association or involvement with the Commonwealth, including recently, I understand, the Kingdom of Morocco? Will he also bear in mind that, if we do not stay closely engaged, the Russians and the Chinese certainly will and are moving in all the time?

My noble friend is absolutely right. Using our contacts through the Commonwealth, we are seeing huge advantages for British companies and for greater prosperity in Africa. The UK has nine trade agreements with 18 countries in Africa, a combination of association agreements with north African markets and economic partnership agreements with sub-Saharan African countries. These include many Commonwealth countries, and we want to see that continue. The work of the Commonwealth investment organisation, which is supported by many noble Lords in this House, will continue to be a focus of trade in the future.

The last summit was a great success and the initiative is a very positive one; it is certainly something that we should focus on. However, the Minister ignored the question about the damage that this cancellation is doing. We raised hopes, we engaged, we appointed a former ambassador 12 months ago, and we invested in sites for the conference. Media reports in Africa suggest that the Government are turning much more to domestic issues rather than delivering on these important international strategic objectives. What is the cost of this cancellation, and what impact does he believe it will have on our relationships with Africa?

I have to say that has not been my experience when I have been travelling in Africa. Last week I was in Angola, where I saw a £440 million UKEF investment unlocking an extraordinary corridor of prosperity from the port of Lobito into the DRC and Zambia. It is that kind of investment that we want, and we can continue to do that with or without an African investment summit. Still, we want to have that summit and we will announce a date shortly.

My Lords, Africa currently represents 2.8% of global GDP but a material 19% of the world’s population. Only 2.1% of imports to Africa originate from the UK. In addition to the summit, what will the Government do to focus on promoting UK exports to the region in line with its expected GDP growth?

I thank my noble friend. There is the world’s largest free-trade area initiative, the African Continental Free Trade Area, with 54 signatures. There is abundant potential for renewable energy and resources critical to the economies and energies of the future. For example, the DRC has almost 70% of global cobalt resources, and will benefit from the investment that we have made in the Lobito corridor. My noble friend is right that it has to be a focus for government support to get businesses to trade. I am delighted to see a 6% increase in trade from the UK to Africa of £46 billion. That has been reflected in recent years and will continue in future years. This is an absolute priority for the UK Government. There are huge advantages, not least through our Commonwealth connections, and we want to build on those.

I was in Ghana at the time as the trade envoy when this was announced, and I have to say to the Minister and His Majesty’s Government that there was huge disappointment and indeed a bit of anger that this happened and at such short notice, with no real reason being given. I still have not found a real reason why it was done. Other countries have elections coming this year, including Ghana. Will the Minister try to answer exactly what the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, was asking: why was it cancelled and who made the decision? Presumably it was Downing Street.

There has not been any suggestion that it is because elections are being held in any country. That was certainly not part of the communique at the time. This will be a major event involving up to 25 Heads of State and around 1,500 people, but it will not be the only show in town. There is continuous activity to increase the amount of trade from Britain and Africa and in reverse. We believe there is huge potential. We want to look to the future and make sure this event is a success and that the continuing activities we carry out will increase trade further between us.

The Government are making a strong case, but the reality is that damage that has been done by the dramatic cuts in aid and the disengagement at short notice of this conference. All this indicates to Africa that Britain is not focused. We have seen in francophone Africa the influence of Wagner, now reinvented as Africa Corps, where Russia is offering support to autocratic regimes to defend them against democracy in exchange for mineral rights. What assurance are we getting that it is not doing that in the countries where we are trying to build partnerships?

The noble Lord is right to point to the malign actions of some state actors and their proxies. We, a country that bases itself on the rules-based order, believe that trade can be a massive bilateral advantage, and that it can lift people out of prosperity.

Sorry, into prosperity—I got that wrong. In co-ordination with our ODA programme, we are seeing the UK as a major influence in that continent, and we want to see that continue.

The Minister mentioned earlier the high proportion of the population of African countries under the age of 25, and that is particularly true of poorer countries. In many of those countries there are high levels of unemployment among young people, which is extremely destabilising. The cancellation of this conference will hardly help in promoting economic growth through partnerships between the UK and sub-Saharan Africa. Could he at least tell us what the Government will do to try to support countries to reduce this very high level of population growth, which is potentially so damaging?

We have a range of tools in that respect, but it is mostly done through our ODA money. There is a lot of support particularly for women and girls. I refer the noble Baroness to the White Paper that was published towards the end of last year, which addresses precisely the point of trying to increase female empowerment and supporting women and girls; if you are doing the right thing for them, you are usually doing the right thing for everyone. The most important aspect of raising Africa out of poverty is to see more stability in the region. There are some horrendous conflicts going on, and we are active in trying to resolve them.

My Lords, some of your Lordships will remember the great tomato shortage of last year when our supermarket shelves were bereft of those crimson globes. What noble Lords may not know is that we were still imposing tariffs and quotas from our largest source of tomatoes, which is the Kingdom of Morocco—quotas and tariffs that we inherited from the EU that were designed to protect Spanish growers but that serve no function even from a protectionist point of view because Moroccan tomatoes are counterseasonal to our own. Will my noble friend the Minister give us some hope that we are going to end these ridiculous restrictions, not as a favour to our allies in Morocco, although they are old allies, but as a favour to ourselves that may incidentally benefit our good friends in the Kingdom of Morocco?

I was in Morocco last year and had my ear effectively bent on this issue. I thought we had resolved it, but then last night I heard from my colleague the Trade Minister that there are still some issues to be ironed out, which I confess has frustrated me. My noble friend is absolutely right that we need to resolve this. Morocco is a key partner with us, and it can provide good-quality food on our shelves that does not conflict with UK farmers.