25 March 2021

As the UK looks to establish global trading partners as part of its post-Brexit policy, connections with Africa are critical. Our colleague Professor Kenneth Amaeshi, director of the Scaling Business in Africa consortium (SBIA), explains why a UK business audience should pay attention to what is happening in Africa.
A red van on a street in Pretoria, South Africa

Africa is on the rise. Rich in natural resources and commodities, Africa needs to grow in a sustainable manner. African entrepreneurs are now being empowered as economic change agents. How can this new economic elite engage in the sustainable development of the continent?

There are many UK-Africa ties including business networks, trading, and familial relationships. We are part of a global community and Africa is a large continent with a growing population.

In early 2020 the UK played host to the inaugural UK-Africa Investment Summit. It was a flagship event intended to promote the UK’s 'Global Britain' policy agenda and evidence former Prime Minister Theresa May’s 2018 pledge to be the G7’s biggest investor in Africa by 2022. This event was attended by representatives of 21 African nations. Much was discussed of the potential for new trade and investment links, but few concrete commitments have arisen yet. The event ran again this January 2021, so the appetite for engagement has clearly not gone away.

Why focus on scaling-up?

Over the years, private sector development efforts in Africa have largely focused on micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). While these are important, they have proven to be insufficient in stimulating sustainable economic development on the continent. Africa needs a good blend of small and large businesses, which is the goal of SBIA.

Explain SBIA’s focus on progressive and sustainable development.

Sustainability issues, especially environmental and social demands, remain a critical imperative for business today. They constitute both risks and opportunities, which require businesses to make real adjustments and transitions. Africa needs to make sustainability transitions, and businesses in Africa need to adjust to these demands.

Some of SBIA’s areas of research include:

  • Energy transitions in Africa
  • Circular economy and sustainable innovation in Africa
  • Business models for sustainability in Africa
  • Financing sustainability transitions in Africa

Tell us about your new study into how businesses in Africa are responding to long-term sustainable development aspirations, while also responding to the Covid-19 crisis.

This study is guided by the following research questions:

  • How are African companies integrating the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into their strategies? Specifically, how are they prioritizing SDGs as important to their business and identifying corresponding organisation-level targets?
  • How are African companies seeking to achieve their organisational targets linked to the SDGs? Specifically, when and how are they working independently or in collaboration with others?
  • In this strategy making and implementation process, how are managers making use of practitioner guidelines such as the SDG Action Manager?
  • How is the Covid-19 crisis affecting all of the above?
  • How is the national context influencing all of the above?

Arguably one of the most prominent and politically controversial trade-offs is between SDG 13: climate action, and SDG 8: decent work and economic growth. One of the key reasons for this is because many climate action efforts involve scaling down fossil fuel reliant energy generation, and this often leads to job losses in those industries. Yet, we know little about how corporate managers seek to address trade-offs between conflicting prescriptions associated with the SDGs — including in particular the above-mentioned trade-off between climate action and decent work.

All of the above has become more important due to the Covid-19 crisis. It has cast into stark relief corporate interdependencies with their social and ecological context.

What are the big issues ahead for African economies, and how should UK businesses and policymakers respond?

Amid the Covid-19 economic recovery, the UK is looking to establish global trading partners as part of its post-Brexit policy, so connections with Africa are critical. What happens in Africa affects the types of businesses that UK firms will work and trade with. Globalisation means that we are affected and influenced by our trading partners, and need to pay attention to what they do and the challenges they face as these often accidentally affect us.

Kenneth Amaeshi is the Chair in Business and Sustainable Development, and Director of the Scaling Business in Africa at the University of Edinburgh Business School.