From the safety of my lockdown office at home in Johannesburg, I’ve just 'returned' from the first-ever UK virtual visit to Kenya. Thanks to telecoms companies such as the UK’s Vodafone, which have enhanced capacity and networks in Kenya and across Africa since the start of lockdown, I was able to meet virtually with business, government – and even have a live TV interview – entirely using digital platforms.
My visit came at a catalytic time for Kenya. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the global economy. While we are still working together to respond to this, we must also turn our attention to how we recover, rebuilding better. We have a clear moment now to choose a greener, more inclusive and sustainable future.
Technology isn’t just enabling us to recreate how we used to work, or what we used to work on. During my visit, I spoke to a number of female entrepreneurs – evidence the ‘Silicon Savannah’ – who are working with the UK-Kenya Tech Hub and are adapting to the extraordinary challenges the pandemic has created, all the time with unremitting trademark resilience and energy.
It was also encouraging to hear that, even in these most difficult of times, innovation remains strong, as does the breadth and depth of the UK-Kenya relationship. This is 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 where we also announced Sh170 billion of new UK investments in Kenya.
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Heartening too was learning about how larger companies – including Kenya’s long-established UK investors; members of the British Chamber of Commerce in Kenya; and representatives of Kenya’s business community – are working hard to sustain jobs and adapt to the challenges of the pandemic.
British investors and employers in Kenya are doing inspiring things here. Azuri is providing off-grid solar energy so that children in rural parts of Kenya can access the government’s TV education.
Waitrose has partnered with Farm Africa and donated Sh10.5 million to support Kenyan suppliers and protect workers and their families through the provision of healthcare and childcare. Unilever is running a Covid-19 awareness and hygiene campaign in Kenya.
I sensed a strong and shared intent about the importance of government and the private sector co-operating more than ever to respond effectively to the pandemic and build back better.
As part of our joint efforts to keep supply chains moving, I heard more about the work between government and industry to ensure cargo continues to flow, including through exports of Kenya’s vegetables and cut flowers to the UK – ensuring British shelves remain stocked – with the support of Kenya and British airways.
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The UK government has also pivoted some of its economic development programmes to help the Kenyan government respond to and recover from Covid-19. UK-funded TradeMark East Africa has adapted its crucial regional work to reduce the cost and time it takes to move across East Africa’s borders, working with governments across the region and with businesses to address the huge tailbacks at border crossings, including through the development of an innovative truck drivers app.
I also heard about the Business Situation Room that, through UK support, provides policy advice and real-time support to businesses facing generational challenges, including manufacturers and SMEs.
Although the worst of the pandemic is most likely still ahead of us in Africa, thoughts are naturally turning to what life will be like 'after Covid-19'. This is why 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 recovery from this downturn, we can rebuild more resiliently, more inclusively, cleaner and greener.
The UK is already providing over Sh1.46 billion worth of support on climate issues in Kenya, leveraging our expertise in climate legislation, green finance and clean energy – underpinned by world-leading climate science, technology and innovation. We want to work with Kenya to build an economy and create jobs that are climate resilient, low carbon and environmentally sustainable.
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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 Kenya’s 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.
Despite all the challenges we face and the difficult times ahead, I found so 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.
Ms Wade-Smith is Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner to Africa