Taking on Trafalgar!

MEDO is one of the few companies in the world that can proudly say “we have an office on Trafalgar Square, London”. With our partnership with UK Trade Commisioner Thobile Mazibuko and South Africa house, we have London open to us with a space in one of the most sought after areas in the entire world. Why are we expanding to London? Peter Burdin, our UK representative explains the oppotunities for UK/Africa partnerships. 

There’s a buzz about the UK these days with more than 600,000 new businesses set to launch this year. That’s approximately one new company  launched every minute of every day.

According to StartUp Britain, a UK government-backed national enterprise campaign, new entrepreneurs are responding in droves to the call for an ‘enterprise led’ recovery following the recession. This trend of entrepreneurialism has been gaining strength for several years. Some 440,000 startups were registered as companies in 2011. By 2014 this had grown to a record-breaking 580,000 startups a year with many of them looking for new markets around the world to partner with. Well over half of all the startups in Europe are created in the UK which gives a sense of the economic power of the UK as the world’s fifth largest economy and in particular its capital London as a global business hub.

Many Londoners feel their city has taken over from New York as the world’s financial heart. There’s an energy  on the streets and an entrepreneurial spirit which has seen unemployment fall to just 5.1% – its lowest level for a decade- and has led some economists to describe the UK economy as a “jobs-creating machine”.

It’s a far cry from the London I arrived in as a young BBC reporter in the 1980s. That might have been the decade of the Young Urban Professionals -the so-called Yuppies- but the UK was not an entrepreneurial society in those days. The Trades Unions wielded enormous power over business and government. As a young reporter the hottest assignment wasn’t covering wars or international news stories, it was reporting on the latest strikes which threatened to bring the country to a grinding halt. 

Then the UK appeared to be in terminal decline. Somehow that trend was reversed and today the UK is open for business with a vibrancy that I could never have imagined when I was reporting from the picket lines of the latest Miners’ strike or another downing of tools at British Leyland’s car assembly plant.

There is now an entrepreneurial pulse which reverberates around the capital. Go to the Institute of Directors in Pall Mall and you’ll see scores of business people discussing new deals. Take a walk to Shoreditch in London’s east end  and watch all the young innovators rushing to work in their business incubators, or just attend one of the numerous hangouts and hookups which are taking place every day in the tech hubs across the city.

With so much going on there are numerous opportunities for forging links with African businesses. The UK has always had a fascination with Africa and it’s possible to attend conferences about the continent every day of the week. The Royal African Society is now a leading forum for discussions on Africa, likewise the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Frontline Club and many others cater for this fascination with Africa. 

In the world of business young entrepreneurs like the Ugandan Eunice Baguma Ball is typical of this new trend. Her Africa Technology Business Group is a umbrella organisation for young people seeking to set up tech innovations between the UK and Africa. The UK has few natural resources of its own – it needs to trade with the world to survive and prosper and that’s why Startup Britain is training budding entrepreneurs  how to export their goods and services outside of Britain. New groups like Fast Forward Africa and  Business In Africa Pays are UK-based accelerators which are dedicated making sure that African startups benefit from this scramble for new markets. Fast Forward Africa’s Andrew Fassnidge says the group’s existence is a recognition that technology is driving economic development and creating demand for new products and services across the continent. It aims to encourage and assist entrepreneurs in the UK to launch ventures in Africa and to partner with existing tech hubs in Africa. Andrew points to the importance of the UK to Africa’s startup entrepreneurs: “With London being one of the leading financial centres in the world, there are many sources of funding for start-ups. Obviously there is seed, angel investors,  private funds and venture capital. Crowdfunding is very popular in UK and is one of the advantages that the UK startup ecosystem has over that in Africa, as entrepreneurs have other options and do not have to accept an unfavourable funding deals. UK start-ups have the power to raise their own cash at their own valuations. These are some of the benefits hopefully we can begin to help African startups take advantage of.” African entrepreneurs are taking advantage of these trends. Last year alone the online funding platform VC4Africa reported that the total capital investment in African startups was more than double the previous year’s figures. 

 The news headlines make grim reading for Africa this year – the Chinese slowdown is said to be reducing demand for the continent’s raw materials, the oil price has hit the continent’s largest economy of Nigeria badly, and South Africa’s internal political squabbles are said to make it an unattractive destination for investors. But if we look beyond the headlines Africa is marching to a different beat – one in which young African entrepreneurs are riding a revolution in digital and mobile technology and are creating new opportunities for themselves and jobs for their communities. 

The most successful sectors are e-commerce, clean and renewable technologies, e-health and financial services and that lead investors to Kenya’s so-called silicon savannah, Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa. 

 All Africa commentators are keen to point out that the continent is a complex geographical entity of fifty-four different countries. One of Africa’s angel investors is 4Di Capital. It’s co-founder Justin Stanford has invested in a number of South African startups and says investors are looking to future opportunities even more than existing ones. He says: “Africa is the last frontier. There are billions of people who are becoming consumers and there’s lots of growth. Technology and the internet hasn’t penetrated deeply and this creates a lot of opportunity”. 

 I recall covering South Africa’s  miracle liberation in 1994 when after years of Apartheid’s iron grip Mr Nelson Mandela was elected  the country’s first democratically-elected President, then scrambling to the airport  the next day from the joy of his inauguration at Union Buildings in Pretoria to fly to  a terrible place called Rwanda where some 800,000 people had just been killed by machetes  in the genocide which shocked the world. Just twenty-two years later Rwanda is now upheld as one of the international community’s favourite investment destinations. 

Its no accident that the World Economic Forum for Africa has decided to host its annual Forum in Kigali this year, nor that the Global African Investment Summit has chosen Rwanda as the location for its Africa gathering.  Something is definitely stirring around the continent. There are still challenges and plenty of work to do but all those people in London and around the world who called this 21st century  “Africa’s Century” are still confident that the continent will prove them right.


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