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China - Africa 20 January 2021

Africa’s free-trade bloc could significantly boost UK-Africa trade and investment flows

By: Sola David-Borha, Chief Executive for Africa Regions at Standard Bank Group

With the African Continental Free-trade Area (AfCFTA) now operational, there are new opportunities for the UK and Africa to strengthen their trade and investment ties.

AfCFTA came into effect on 1 January – a significant milestone in the journey towards creating a single market for goods and services.

With a combined GDP of $3.3 trillion and a market of 1.2 billion people, AfCFTA has the potential to increase growth in Africa by $450 billion over the next decade, according to the World Bank’s estimates.

By removing tariffs, reducing trade barriers, and standardising regulatory frameworks, intra-African trade could rise from 15% currently to 25% by 2040, according to the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

The benefits of intra-regional trade are well known, and some examples already exist on the continent. Trademark East Africa, an initiative supported by the UK government that is aimed at driving trade across the East African community, has been effective in increasing trade flows and reducing trade costs by up to 10%. This initiative should be scaled to other regions in Africa to supplement AfCFTA and accelerate its rollout.

Although the initial benefits will stem from increased intra-African trade, we believe that AfCFTA also provides a huge opportunity to boost the UK-Africa trade corridor. It will also stimulate significant investments into the continent, particularly in sectors such as technology, manufacturing and infrastructure.

To achieve the sustainable development goals by 2030, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that Africa requires up to US$600 billion per year in incremental financing.

Given the nature of Africa’s development challenges, patient capital is the order of the day. The pursuit of short-term returns will, in many cases, lead to the wrong investment decisions. As such, investors must have long-term views that are underpinned by a clear purpose and value proposition.

AfCFTA is a flagship programme under the African Union’s (AU’s) 2063 agenda. Together with the Sustainable Development Goals, the 2063 agenda provides a strategic framework for inclusive economic growth. To maximise long-term returns and create shared value, British and African corporates are therefore able to align their strategies with this framework.

And as African corporates grow while addressing the continent’s developmental challenges, the UK’s capital markets will have a role to play as a reliable source of funding.

Since 2018, Standard Bank has raised more than $7 billion for its corporate and sovereign clients from the UK’s capital markets. The depth of the country’s financial markets was exemplified in June 2020 when, amid the first wave of COVID-19, London-listed telecoms group Helios Towers issued Eurobonds worth $750 million.

Further, we assisted Acorn Holdings with issuing East Africa’s first green bond for green-certified student accommodation – an instrument that was cross-listed on the International securities market (ISM) of the London Stock Exchange.

I believe that with these new opportunities at hand, African corporates and sovereigns could delve deeper into the UK’s capital markets to fund their growth on the continent.

Lessons from COVID-19

One of the lessons from COVID-19 is that we need each other, and partnerships between nations and the private and public sectors are critical. Private sector-led economic growth, enabled by market-friendly policies, should be the template for public-private partnerships in Africa.

Africa’s growth story has been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has certainly not been derailed. The World Bank’s 2021 GDP forecast for sub-Saharan Africa is growth of 2.7%, and the continent’s underlying structural drivers remain firmly in place.

We must turn the challenges the continent faces into opportunities. As Africa gears up for a COVID-19 recovery and the UK charts its own path in the wake of Brexit, new opportunities are coming to the fore, particularly for purpose-driven organisations.