A friend in need is a friend indeed: UK keeps Kenyan firms afloat in tough times

Thursday July 02 2020

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street in central London on January 21, 2020. PHOTO | AFP

From the safety of my lockdown office at home in Johannesburg, I’ve recently “returned” from my first ever virtual visit to Kenya.

Thanks to telecommunication technology, I was able to meet virtually with the business community, government officials and colleagues — and even have a live TV interview — entirely using digital platforms.

Having achieved this milestone, virtual visits will now become a firm fixture for me, to help me stay in touch with the 23 African countries where the UK’s Department for International Trade has footprints.

My visit to Kenya built on the breadth and depth of the already strong UK-Kenya partnership — framed by the strategic partnership that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Uhuru Kenyatta signed in London at the UK-Africa Investment Summit in January.

I spoke with businesses and government about UK support to Kenya’s Covid-19 response and longer-term economic recovery, as well as Kenya’s commitment to continuing its strong performance on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings. We want to ensure reforms are conducive to both protecting existing investment in Kenya, and also attract new investment to boost growth and productivity. We also had productive discussions on the importance of reaching a trade agreement by the end of this year, to ensure trade continuity.

A lot has happened since the Summit in January, and to respond to this, the UK government has pivoted some of its economic development programmes to help Kenya respond to and recover from Covid-19. For example, UK-funded TradeMark East Africa has adapted its regional work to reduce the cost and time it takes to move across East Africa’s borders, working with governments and businesses across the region to address the huge tailbacks at border crossings, including through the development of an innovative truck drivers app.


We are also supporting the Kenyan government’s Business Situation Room, which provides policy advice and real-time support to businesses facing generational challenges, including manufacturers and SMEs. The Situation Room also creates procedures to enable companies to re-open and re-start their operations without sacrificing health and safety.


As part of our joint efforts to keep trade and supply chains moving, I also heard more about the work between government and industry to ensure cargo continues to flow. This includes the work of Kenya and British Airways to facilitate exports of Kenya’s vegetables and cut flowers to the UK.

Although the worst of the pandemic is most likely still ahead of us in Kenya and Africa, thoughts are naturally turning to what life will be like “after Covid-19”. My virtual visit focused on what we can do now to establish and embed the best environment and frameworks possible, so that as we experience economic and business recovery from this downturn, we can rebuild more resiliently, more inclusively, cleaner and greener.

With this in mind, it was exciting to talk about the UK companies that are looking to support Kenya’s ambitions on energy access, to strengthen further renewable power production, including through the introduction of battery storage solutions. And it was great to hear that companies like Shell are at the forefront of business efforts to reduce carbon emissions in our economies, including as part of the #RacetoZero campaign.

I also spoke to Kenyan counterparts about what we can do together to establish strong frameworks around energy, especially to tackle the challenges posed by climate change, exacerbated by locusts and severe flooding. There was also a commitment to focus on regulation around renewables and work together to progress existing projects, including Energy Storage Africa and Globeleq.

Evidence of their commitment to quality and integrity, it was also heartening to hear about how larger UK companies — including some of Kenya’s long-established UK investors; members of the British Chamber of Commerce in Kenya; and representatives of Kenya’s business community — are working to sustain jobs and adapt to the challenges of the pandemic. I sensed a shared intent about the importance of government and the private sector co-operating to respond effectively to the pandemic. I saw evidence of partnership at every turn, to support businesses, jobs, and livelihoods.

Despite all the challenges we face and the difficult times ahead, I found much to celebrate about the work we are doing together. Even through the digital platforms, I felt the warmth of Kenya’s welcoming embrace. And I look forward to my next visits — virtual and in-person.

Emma Wade-Smith is Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner to Africa.