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Uganda-UK Convention: Time to step up

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Added 19th September 2017 11:12 AM

Earlier this year I was sent an article via WhatsApp – we’re getting very modern in the House of Lords! - that showed a report from Harvard University forecasts that Uganda will become the fastest economy in the world by 2025.

Uganda-UK Convention: Time to step up

Lord Dolar Popat is British Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Uganda and Rwanda

Earlier this year I was sent an article via WhatsApp – we’re getting very modern in the House of Lords! - that showed a report from Harvard University forecasts that Uganda will become the fastest economy in the world by 2025.

There is an on-going Uganda-UK Convention in London  attended by the Vice President, Edward Ssekandi, the Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga and a large delegation of Ugandan Parliamentarians and business people. Lord Dolar Popat, the British Prime Minister's Trade Envoy to Uganda and Rwanda made a presentation on Saturday, September 16, 2016. Below is his keynote speech 


Your Excellency Vice President Ssekandi, Honourable Madame Speaker Kadaga; my Lords; Ministers; your Excellences and distinguished guests….

It is a great privilege to be back addressing the Uganda Convention, and to see this event go from strength to strength year after year. It is fantastic to see this event's laser-like focus on the need for trade, and I would like to thank Willy Mutenza and his team for all of the work they've done to make this event a success.

I would also like to thank everyone for attending today. I believe we all share a determination to build stronger links between the two great nations of Uganda and the United Kingdom. It is also particularly nice to see His Excellency Julius Moto, here today, Uganda's new High Commissioner to the UK. Your Excellency, you come with a sterling reputation for fostering trade links, and I'm sure I speak on behalf of all of us here when I say we very much look forward to working with you and increasing bilateral trade between our nations.

Following the General Election earlier this year, I was delighted to be reappointed as the Prime Minister's Trade Envoy to Uganda and Rwanda. I am particular delighted for three reasons:

  1. My love for East Africa, especially Uganda, the land of my birth.  

  2. Because of the amazing economic potential that Uganda and Rwanda have, with their current high levels of economic potential and the obvious opportunities for that to continue.

  3. Because I believe it is in both of Uganda and Rwanda's interests to work with British firms, with our high standards and integrity, to help to build a better future.

Earlier this year I was sent an article via WhatsApp - we're getting very modern in the House of Lords! - that showed a report from Harvard University forecasts that Uganda will become the fastest economy in the world by 2025. I want to see that become a reality and I want Britain to play a leading role in Uganda's success.

This is an important moment for both countries. Here in Britain, we are undertaking one of the most significant changes the 21st century has seen so far; we are leaving the European Union.

Every day, the newspapers are filled with stories about Brexit. I don't particularly want to go into the details of what Brexit will and won't entail, or to discuss the pros and cons of the decision taken in the referendum.

What I do want to say is this: speaking as a businessman, Brexit is a fantastic opportunity for this country.

Britain has, for the past few decades, masked some major economic problems. On the surface we have looked OK; GDP growth figures have been fine, the unemployment rate has generally been low, interest rates have become manageable.

But beneath the surface, there are some profound problems. Public sector borrowing has been too high, we have been overly reliant on the City and other services industries whilst more traditional industries like manufacturing and construction have suffered. Our productivity figures have remained stubbornly low; it takes a worker in France or Germany four days to produce what a British worker does in five.

Yet perhaps the greatest problem we have is our balance of trade deficit; Britain simply does not have enough exports to pay for its imports. Again, there are many reasons for this, and I don't want to go into all of them today, but I do want to focus on one particularly appropriate area.

Every year I sit on a judging panel for the Queen's Awards for Exports. We review hundreds of applications; many of them have created the most amazing products that can literally change people's lives; others have developed marketing and export strategies that are unique and generate huge amounts of business.

But there is one trend I've spotted over the past few years; they all tend to have something in common. It's not the type of product they're producing, or the way they are exporting; it's where they are exporting to.

The number of firms that only focus on the E.U. is staggering; the one continent in the world where economic growth has been sluggish and demographic trends show an ageing population. You get the odd firm exporting to North America, a few in China and some focusing on Saudi Arabia, but I don't recall seeing a single application talking about Africa, and very few looking at the emerging markets in Asia and South America.

This is why Brexit is an opportunity; because it's a once in a lifetime chance to challenge every business in this country: why are you doing this? Why are you neglecting the economies that are most likely to grow in the next decade?

Uganda wants to invest in major infrastructure projects - we have some of the best construction, design and engineering firms in the world in Britain! Why aren't they in Uganda?

Uganda wants to develop its banking and financial services sector - there's probably no other country in the world that can boast greater expertise in making this work. We need to get them into Uganda.

Brexit gives us an opportunity to challenge assumptions, and to change our world view. And my role as a Trade Envoy is find those companies who would be a good fit, to persuade them that Uganda is a fantastic market, and to help them to put together the best possible proposals to win contracts and establish trading arms in Uganda.

But I also have another role as a Trade Envoy, and that is to speak on behalf of British firms when they are having difficulties. And I speak now to those of you who are in the room representing Uganda, and I say this as a friend.

I cannot clap with one hand; I need your help to make our shared wish a reality as well.

Over the past eighteen months I have helped a number of British-led firms and projects bid for opportunities in Uganda. Things start well; proposals are well-received and everyone seems to be on the same page. There's lots of enthusiasm; lots of actions and then things are submitted to the relevant Departments.

And then…. Nothing.

There's no feedback; there's no progress. Things just stop. Nobody is sure if things are proceeding or if they should scrap the project and move on.

This isn't good enough. Not only for the companies involved, who've often undertaken significant costs to try and secure this work, but also for Uganda. There needs to be more clarity, transparency and accountability for how Government decisions are - or aren't - taken; because it reflects poorly on the reputation of such a great country.

Increasingly, businesses are paying attention to the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Index, and although Uganda has made efforts to improve it's ranking in recent years, it is still far too low on the list.

A lot more needs to be done to improve in this area, because otherwise Uganda will not reach the heights that it could - and should - do.

Again, I say all of this as a friend, and as someone who is desperate for both Uganda to prosper and for UK-Uganda bilateral trade to significantly increase.

However there is one area where we have made significant progress in the past couple of years. We may have to do more to encourage British firms to export, but this Government have taken tremendous strides to make it easier than ever to export to Uganda.

For those businesses in the room today thinking about doing business in Uganda, I would like to outline the support available to you from Her Majesty's Government.

Let me start with our excellent diplomatic support. As the Prime Minister's Trade Envoy, I am at the service of any firm looking to establish themselves in Uganda. I am visiting Kampala again in November with a delegation and am in constant contact with the FCO, Department for International Trade, our High Commission in Uganda and - of course - the Ugandan Government. I can offer contacts, guidance and support for any project you are looking to take forward.

Similarly our High Commission in Kampala is one of the most commercially-minded diplomatic posts I have worked with. The current High Commissioner, Peter West, is very talented and leads an excellent team on the ground.

 Then there is the support of the Department of International Trade. One of the best decisions taken by Prime Minister Theresa May was to create this new Department, dedicated to increasing Britain's trade presence around the world. Their role is to drive the Government's desire to increase trade and exporting, and they have dedicated staff - both across the UK and on the ground in Kampala - ready to support any business looking to export to Uganda. They have specialists in a huge number of sectors, and they are very willing to help.

But that's the diplomatic side - we also need to think about the finance.

And that's where there's even more good news.

Because in Britain we have an organisation that is simply not well-known enough in the private sector, yet can open up more doors than almost any of its competitors.  UK Export Finance is the UK Government's export credit agency. They offer a tremendous range of products to British businesses looking to export to Uganda; from direct lending to bond insurance; from a Working Capital Scheme to a Letter of Credit Guarantee Scheme, they are there to offer financial support and to make exporting easier, and believe me when I say they are the best in the world at what they do.

Last year, reflecting the shift to a more pro-active approach by the UK Government to Uganda, they broadened their range of products to ensure UK companies remain competitive and respond to increasing development and infrastructure needs in Uganda. They increased their current annual country cover for Uganda from £100m to £500m.

And during my visit to Kampala in March, I was able to make a further announcement, that figure now stands at £600m.  This allows UK Export Finance to support major projects in Uganda as well as smaller ones, and a number of large projects are currently under consideration.

This reflects both the importance that the UK Government places on Uganda, but also the increasing level of interest being shown by British firms for projects in Uganda, particularly larger scale infrastructure, agritech and energy projects.

So I can safely say that, from financial to diplomatic support; from strategic advice to the best contacts book in Kampala; the UK Government is here to support every business that is thinking that Uganda might be their newest market.

I would like to finish by saying that, for both of our countries, we have reached an important crossroads. Choices - and improvements - have to be made on both sides. But what I hope everyone in this room can agree on, is that we should be partners on the road ahead. We share a tremendous history, and a lot of affection for each other's countries; we are good for one another. But we cannot simply rely on good will; we have to also take the necessary steps to help each other in the months and years ahead. I hope my speech today has helped to outline what I think needs doing to make that a reality.

Thank you for listening, and I hope you all have a fantastic and profitable day.

Lord Dolar Popat is British Prime Minister's Trade Envoy to Uganda and Rwanda

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