UK should focus on trade with Africa, not aid – with women at the forefront

Sarah Newey
The UK-Africa investment summit – attended by 21 African delegations  – comes ahead of the UK’s exit from the European Union - Getty Images Europe

The UK should move from an aid-based relationship with African countries to one focused on trade – with female entrepreneurs at the forefront, the trade commissioner for Africa has said. 

Speaking at the first UK-Africa investment summit in London, Emma Wade-Smith told The Telegraph that focusing on two-way trade is a “no brainer” as it has “pulled more people out of poverty than any other activity”.  

But she added that barriers limiting the potential of female entrepreneurs need to be broken down to maximise development. 

“Women are not only much more likely than men to repay loans, but they’ll invest twice as much of their business back into families than men,” said Ms Wade-Smith. “If you invest in women entrepreneurs you’re not just investing in an individual but in a society.”

But while roughly a third of all businesses on the continent are led by women, they are as much as six times less likely to gain access to financing than their male counterparts on the continent. 

“Just one instance – if you’re looking for a loan you need to own an asset, such as your house or land. But as a woman in Africa sometimes that’s really difficult. So rather than require women to own assets, we need to look at different criteria,” Ms Wade-Smith said. 

The commissioner also pointed to the start-up Night Africa event she hosted in London last week – where 11 female African entrepreneurs were introduced to investors – as an example of how the UK government is directing resources towards female-owned businesses. 

Sola David-Borha, chief executive of the Africa region at Standard Bank Group, echoed the call to support women across the continent. 

But she stressed that increasing access to bank accounts was central to success – across sub-Saharan Africa, almost two thirds of women do not have a bank account. 

“Women make up 70 per cent of the informal sector and 50 per cent of farmers in Africa, so being able to bank this informal sector is critical,” Ms David-Borha told The Telegraph

“We need to empower women, not by giving them aid, but by providing access to the tools they need to thrive – whether it’s financing or a bank account or training to improve business practices.”

Ms David-Borha added that innovative mobile money platforms – including M-Pesa and Nomanini – were using technology to transform banking for underserved groups. 

“We need to drive towards financial inclusion on the continent,” she said. “Ultimately the principle is to ensure more of the workforce in Africa is productive, especially women.”

The UK-Africa investment summit – attended by 21 African delegations  – comes ahead of the UK’s exit from the European Union, with Boris Johnson and his Cabinet using the event to showcase what “global Britain” might look like. 

But it is also reflective of a modern-day ‘scramble for Africa’, as countries around the globe jostle for influence in the world’s youngest continent, home to eight of the world’s 15 fastest growing economies. Japan, China, Russia and France have already held similar investment summits. 

“We want the UK to the be the investment partner of choice for Africa,” said Alok Sharma, international development secretary. “The whole UK government is devoted to this agenda.”

Ms David-Borha added: “Africa is a bit of a beautiful bride at the moment, I think it’s exciting that the African Union  has re-positioned itself from being focused on aid to looking at the economy.”

“I think this summit is long overdue, the UK is a little late to the party, but it has sent the  right signal – that the UK is willing to do business in Africa,” she said. 

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