Why Post-Brexit Britain Needs Nigeria

Post-Brexit, Britain will face a trading challenge. This is one of the most important economic realities of our time. The subject was in the spotlight again last week, as the Office of National Statistics published a new report on Britain’s global trading relationships. Understandably, most attention was given to the United States and the European Union itself: deals with both will be vital to Britain’s future success.

But so too will the development of trading relationships with smaller economies, one example being a country 4,000 miles south of the UK. With 180m people, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, its biggest democracy and, as the International Monetary Fund reconfirmed in October, its largest economy. This presents a huge opportunity for trade—but the UK is letting this slip by.

When I was on a trade mission to Nigeria and Ghana in 2014 I was consistently asked by officials and business leaders why the UK had so little business presence in these countries. There was little dialogue between the countries at the senior level of government—surprisingly, as the UK was said to be scaling back in Francophone West Africa to concentrate in Anglophone Nigeria and Ghana.

Recently, I was in Nigeria again representing the UK as part of a G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance (G20 YEA) mission. I met officials, businesses, advisers and politicians, and similar points were made—Britain is letting opportunities slip. The Netherlands and Belgium, for example, export more to Nigeria than the UK does. The UK government’s new Industrial Strategy Green Paper does signal a new approach of consortia and “Team UK,” with a view to Britain mirroring the success of countries like Germany, where trade missions involve companies of all sizes throughout supply-chains as one integrated package. But, as the UK’s Nigeria trade envoy, John Howell MP, has confirmed, there is much to do if Britain and Nigeria are to develop a successful trading relationship.

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Brexiteers often argue that Britain’s exit from the EU will enable it to become a great global trading nation. They argue that Britain can focus on forging strong links once more with Commonwealth countries—such as Nigeria. The UK is well-placed here. Nigeria and Britain have shared legal systems, a shared language and entwined histories. After the US, the UK has the biggest diaspora population of Nigerians, and over 16,000 Nigerian students are at universities in the UK; 50 per cent more than in the States. (Note to Ministers—we risk losing soft power links as well as economic benefit if universities continue to be threatened by Brexit).

Both countries are “silicon furnaces,” forging paths in tech and entrepreneurial activity on their respective continents—together with Kenya and South Africa, Nigeria dominates Africa in this respect. Indeed, Nigeria is hosting Africa’s first entrepreneurs summit later this year, linked to the G20 YEA.

The delegation met Governor Abiola Ajimobi of Oyo province, a populous state two hours from the mega-city of Lagos, who made an impassioned case for how education helps develop entrepreneurial opportunity: “From structuring information comes education. Education leads to knowledge. Knowledge to a skill. Skills brings capability, capability capacity and then empowerment to change your circumstances.”

Ajimobi explained that along with education, the province would focus on state-led action. The state was promoting business hubs and incubators, start-up finance and digital skills programmes, and transforming the productivity of key sectors. The aim is to support a generation of new entrepreneurs, with skilled jobs, who create and spread wealth.That sounds familiar. A focus on those left behind and with low skill levels, the goal of raising productivity in key industries, implementing effective place-based actions to support business growth (which ResPublica champions) and utilising the opportunities of new technologies: you could scribble out Nigeria and write Britain. This is a shared agenda around which the two countries can unite.

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One way forward is utilising and selling the UK’s cutting-edge scientific research and leading products to develop opportunities in Nigeria: a win-win. I talked to one such business, the Rack Centre, a premium, co-location data holder and the only such facility in Africa. Using British technology, the company is a critical pillar of the new digital economy and a go-to place for companies seeking growth. It and other companies I spoke to are keen to secure UK investors, particularly through the City. As well as Nigeria’s traditional oil sector, health and agriculture provide significant opportunities, as is building its poor infrastructure. New train lines are taking shape across the country, including notoriously congested Lagos, but the Chinese are at the forefront. Yet Britain is building Crossrail, the largest construction project in Western Europe, and we have leading architects and systems planning.

If Brexit Britain is to trade successfully, politicians can’t simply say there are opportunities—they need to act on them. It will mean aligning the industrial strategy, trading opportunities and Brexit processes, our diaspora communities, our cities and regions, and deploying our entrepreneurial and digital strengths. Political recognition of Britain’s opportunities in democratic, entrepreneurial Nigeria is long overdue.

 

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