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The most sophisticated cement production plant in the world is a two hour drive from Lagos, the booming commercial capital of one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Nigeria has averaged a staggering 9% annual growth since 2000, in blithe disregard for the western financial crisis. If you visit Dangote Cement’s new plant, after flying one of British Airways most profitable routes, you will see dozens of Staffordshire made JCBs trucking around sand by the tonne. Aliko Dangote is set to choose the London Stock Exchange for his company’s first international share offering next year. The UK is already benefiting from Nigeria’s boom.

But regrettably this example runs counter to the trend. Britain is losing her position at the fore of a continent experiencing the fastest economic growth in its history. The growth trajectory of modern Africa looks familiar – it is following the same path once trodden by India and Developing Asia. Projecting this path forward generates exciting numbers. If Africa merely continues as per the past three decades its economy will grow from $2 trillion today to $29 trillion by 2050 (in today’s money, this equates to a larger annual output than at present in the US and Eurozone combined).

Some countries will benefit from this boom, just as Japan has benefited from China’s rise, and the UK thrived from the US industrialisation of the 19th Century. But today we would have to bet that the primary beneficiaries will be South Africa, China and India. Recent trends show the UK’s focus on a low-growth Europe has increased while trade with Africa has shrivelled from a peak of 26% of all sub-Saharan trade to just 3% today. In the last 15 years, Africa’s exports have risen from $180 billion to nearly $700 billion, with imports having grown in line. So 26% of African total trade today would be worth around $300 billion, or more than 10% of UK GDP. Instead trade with Africa today is worth just 1% of UK GDP.

It is not too late to re-invigorate the historic relationships. The English language is so attractive that the reformist Rwanda government has changed from French and broadcasts the BBC. Nearly every English family has had some connection to Africa through a distant relative who worked in Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria or South Africa. And don’t forget the Queen – still the head of state for many.

Based on our forecasts of Africa following India and Developing Asia, we see car sales exploding from 3-4 million today to 14 million by 2030 and 35 million by 2050. Passenger flights are expected to double every decade from around 110 million to 1.7 billion by 2050. While the UK struggles with the question of expanding Heathrow from two runways to three, African governments need to plan for seventeen runways where just one exists now. The growth opportunities for UK businesses are immense.

What about corruption, conflict and disease? HIV infection rates and deaths from malaria are both down 27% from their peak. The surging demographics of Africa are better educated than they have ever been and life expectancy is on the rise. Growing income levels are creating an emerging middle class calling for more accountable, less corrupt government. Nigeria’s rating in the Transparency International survey is still low, but it has shown the third best improvement of any nation in the last decade. The majority of Africans now live in budding democracies.

Too many in the global North still think of Africa in obsolete negative terms – we all remember the Band Aid song of 1984. What many don’t know is that Ethiopia has also been one of the fastest growing economies in the world since the turn of the millenium. While it struggled to feed  18 million children back in 1984, today it sustains her 34 million.

To give credit to David Cameron, his visit to Nigeria expressly aimed to boost to business links with Nigeria. It is now up to UK firms to follow up, not just in Nigeria but across the wider continent. Africa has learnt a valuable lessons from the mistakes of the past, and is now booming on the back of making the right public policy choices.

Charles Robertson is Global Chief Economist and Head of Macro-strategy of Renaissance Capital. He is the lead author of The Fastest Billion: The Story Behind Africa’s Economic Revolution, published in October 2012. 

Follow Charles on Twitter: @rencapman

Listen to Bright Blue blog editor Jonathan Algar in conversation with Charles & Razia Khan at the Royal Institute of International Affairs:


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