John Howell is MP for Henley and the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Nigeria.
I have just returned from a visit to Nigeria as the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy. It was both a highly enjoyable and fascinating visit which took forward the opportunities of doing business between the two countries and portrayed the UK in the best possible light. It was all the more rewarding because of the excellence of both our High Commissioner in Nigeria and the Acting Deputy High Commissioner. Without these two, my activities would not have been half as successful.
The Trade Envoy role was started under David Cameron long before the Brexit vote in the UK. It is a sign of the commitment that our Government is making to Nigeria and to doing business there. There is no doubt though that Brexit makes the need to get business deals in operation all the more urgent, but it doesn’t change that commitment.
The UK has dropped to fifth position in terms of the countries doing business there – which, given the closeness of language, of legal systems, of the rule of law, of our joint membership of the Commonwealth, and of our shared values is, quite frankly, unacceptable.
Much of this fall is because, to date, our concentration has been on oil and gas at a time when the oil price internationally has taken a nose dive. Oil and gas still provides excellent opportunities, but the aim of Muhammadu Buhari, the country’s President, is to diversify the Nigerian economy – and my aim is to diversify British interests. PwC, for example, predicts an increase to £7 billion by 2030 of non-oil and gas exports. This is why I am trying to organise a British fashion show in Nigeria next year to support the textile industry, and to ensure that we move as much of Britain to Nigeria as we can.
During the course of the week, we visited the site of the new Dangote refinery to the east of Lagos, which will produce enough oil to satisfy Nigeria’s domestic needs – and still have some left over for export. There are opportunities here for British business and we spent time working out how to quantify them. We also visited Eko Atlantic, a breathtaking vision and ambition for the development of part of the seafront in Lagos. What both of these projects have in common is the sheer scale of the developments being put forward and opportunities which may well have passed British business by.
I also launched PwC’s new booklet Seizing the opportunity, produced on commission from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which takes a hard but optimistic look at the opportunities available to British business. I had conversations with prominent Nigerians in the oil and gas sector, with British businesses present there and with FCO and DFID officials responsible for taking forward a highly imaginative agenda for prosperity. We also visited a number of British and Nigerian companies including Ladol, an ambitious offshore logistics company based in a free trade area of Lagos, and Guinness which has had an operation in Lagos since 1962.
There were numerous other meetings and visits I had during my visit to the country, including to the Nigerian Bottling Company. But one of the most prominent was ringing the closing bell on the Lagos Stock Exchange – the 2nd biggest in Nigeria – and addressing the country’s press and media afterwards. I hope this will have taken forward the work on capital markets that is taking place between London and Nigeria.
Of course, Nigeria has its challenges too, and no visit can blind you to those. The threat of terrorism from Boko Haram in the North-East of the country is real but is being tackled with the help of Britain. Full freedom for the currency, however welcome the start of the process, is still a developing situation in which we are providing pointers. Corruption remains endemic but is being tackled by a new President who came to power to do just that and Britain is helping in this process too. Finally, the reliability of energy infrastructure needs to be improved and this is something where British companies can play a major role.
What I want to do in my time as Trade Envoy is three things. First, I want to see a massive increase in trade between our two countries. It currently stands at around $4 billion per annum. Second, I want to see an increase in the ranking in which Nigeria comes in world tables as a country in which to do business. That is not only good for Nigeria, but good for Britain too. Third, I want to see more effort being put into increasing the prosperity of ordinary Nigerians. Prosperity is of mutual benefit. British brands are much appreciated in Nigeria and we are home to the 2nd largest diaspora in the world which can and does help with trade. I want to build a bright future for a Britain that has always looked outwards and for a Nigeria – which is set to be the powerhouse of sub-Saharan Africa and of the whole of the continent.