UK business trade opportunities in Africa

25 July 2019

As future trading relations with the EU remain uncertain, we talk to Geoffrey de Mowbray, Co-Chairman of the British Exporters Association

With the latest available World Trade Organization figures1 showing the UK ranked 10th in the global league table of exporters, there’s certainly room for improvement when it comes to selling our goods and services overseas.
So, while future trade relations with the EU are uncertain, British businesses need to find alternative, growing markets and that could mean renewing their focus on Africa, says Geoffrey de Mowbray, Co-Chairman of the British Exporters Association (BExA).
Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa – the area south of the Sahara desert – is expected to be around 3.6% in 2019/202. Favourable demographics, an increasingly innovative culture and a taste for British goods and services make it a very promising export market, says de Mowbray.

Ready for growth

He says: “Some might argue that we are late to the party in Africa behind the likes of China, but I don’t agree. In fact, the timing is almost perfect. I believe the continent is where major global growth will be in the next 20 to 30 years, possibly longer. It’s very populous, very young and there’s lots of innovation.
“In the mining sector, which is where my company is focused, you can sell pretty much anything from machinery and generators to domestic products for the accommodation built for the miners – but there are opportunities in most sectors.
“Most importantly, a lot of people there are keen to work with the British. There might be benefit in cheap Chinese products, but lots of people like the quality of British products and are attracted to UK firms’ reputations for good business ethics and trustworthiness.”
And de Mowbray knows what he’s talking about, having started exporting old computers from the UK to the central African country of Cameroon at the age of 18. These days he’s the founder and CEO of London-based Dints International, a supply chain management company that predominantly services mining companies operating in the region.
In his role at BExA – a trade organisation working with the UK government to provide support to British exporters – he encourages trade with countries all around the world. “I don’t think everyone is in an export frame of mind yet, but I hope that a change in mindset will be one of the positives that come out of Brexit, because there are a lot of opportunities – we just have to go out there and get them.”

Passion for Africa

However, de Mowbray has a special place in his heart for Africa: “It has the right time zone and historic ties with many English-speaking countries, so yes, I’m very passionate about trade with Africa.”
His experience of Africa began as a teenager when he visited Cameroon to see his parents, who were working there. He got a job teaching IT but then became involved in importing old computers from the UK for students to use. He then “fell into” selling spare parts for machinery, expanded his customer base and the rest, as they say, is history.
De Mowbray believes Africa’s lack of infrastructure, perceived as a drawback by some, means it is an exciting place to bring innovation to market. “For example, Africa has leapfrogged its lack of telephone cable infrastructure through mobile phone use. Look at M-Pesa in Kenya – they were using mobile payments before we were in the UK. Africa is a deeply entrepreneurial region and technology is the key enabler.”

Meeting the challenge

He admits there are challenges in exporting to Africa: “You need to have patience, you can’t pull off a deal overnight. And I personally avoid government contracts because I find them more complicated. Getting paid is obviously important so you want to make sure you’ve got your finance lined up, so you have insurance. That can be mitigated by choosing the right partners to work with.”
Research to find the right market in Africa is advisable, says de Mowbray, but he recommends Ghana in west Africa as one good entry point: “I joke that it’s Africa for beginners because it’s quite a straightforward place to operate. It has direct flights to the UK, an expanding economy, a growing middle class – and plenty of Ghanaians live in London.”
The British businesses that are already operating successfully in Ghana include Barclays, Vodafone, G4S, GlaxoSmithKline, beverages firm Diageo, food company Blue Skies and oil and gas exploration company Tullow.
Talking to people who are already exporting is also an important way to learn, and de Mowbray’s always happy to pass on what he’s learned. One of the most important tips he has is that the key to success is spending time in Africa itself. “Nothing can replace time in your target country, it’s the only way to understand the culture
and what works.”
His final message on exporting is simple: “Enjoy it – you get to travel the world and there’s a definite excitement about exporting, meeting new people and seeing new places.”

Leading markets for UK exporters

The UK government wants to strengthen trading ties with non-EU countries like Australia, China, India and the US. Here are some details3 about export opportunities in those locations – and also in Ghana, the African country recommended by Geoffrey de Mowbray.
£5.015bn of UK goods were exported to Oz in 2018
+Common language and similarities in business and legal practices
- Strict biosecurity regulations, increased costs and time to get your products to market due to the distances involved
£18.570bn of UK goods were exported to China in 2018
+A huge and expanding market for UK businesses such as Jaguar Land Rover
- A complex business culture, plus large parts of the economy are still closed to full foreign participation
£344m of UK goods were exported to Ghana in 2018
+Large consumer base with a growing middle class and a regional hub for opportunities in other west African markets
- Erratic power supply nationwide and obstructive bureaucracy
£5.524bn of UK goods were exported to India in 2018
+English is widely spoken in this fast-growing economy, with rising personal incomes creating a new middle-class consumer market
- Taxes on imports can be 35% or higher, while extreme weather conditions can affect business
£54.991bn of UK goods were exported to the USA in 2018
+ The world’s largest economy, and the UK’s top export destination, with access to a global supply chain that can lead to exports for other markets
- US litigation can be challenging, so hire legal and insurance experts based in the US

3 Information from Department for International Trade and the Office for National Statistics. Figures shown are for UK goods only and don’t include services

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