NAIROBI (Reuters) - Britain is committed to free trade with Kenya after it leaves the European Union, British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Thursday on a visit to Nairobi as her government plays up increased trade with non-EU nations as a Brexit selling point.
May was speaking on the third stop of a trip to Africa during which she has said she wants Britain to become the biggest investor on the continent out of the world’s richest nations. [L8N1VJ180]
“As Britain prepares to leave the European Union we are committed to a smooth transition that ensures continuity in our trading relationship with Kenya, ensuring Kenya retains its duty free quota free access to the UK market,” May said.
The EU is currently Britain’s biggest trading partner. Skeptics say closer ties and more trade with Africa will do little to offset the economic impact of Brexit.
Total trade with Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya, the three nations on her tour this week, amounted to just over 13 billion pounds in 2016, official British figures show, compared with 554 billion pounds of trade with the EU that year.
The prime minister has used her first official visit to the region of more than one billion people to stress that Britain’s relationship with former colonies, including Kenya and other African nations, is increasingly focused on private investment, not on aid.
In Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy and most populous nation, May also promised closer commercial ties and promoted the longstanding presence of British companies in the country.
Analysts have said that as Britain confronts the full impact of Brexit, African states will enter discussions from a position of strength, given the many other options they have for trade and military partners, from Russia and China to the Gulf and Turkey.
So far Britain’s record in using aid money on private investment in Africa is mixed. The government’s private equity arm, the CDC group, invested $140 million in ARM Cement, a Kenyan firm, two years ago that was put in administration this month.
Britain is Kenya’s largest trading partner and a major market for its exports of cut flowers. The rapidly expanding agriculture sector is Kenya’s biggest foreign exchange earner and a big source of jobs.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, speaking alongside May at a news conference, said he welcomed her assurance that Kenyan duty free exports would continue after Brexit and said Kenya will be pressing for an increase in exports.
British companies are also promoting trade opportunities outside the EU after Brexit.
“The EU is an important market, it’s established and mature, but our great markets in the future will be in Asia, Africa, and South America,” said Karen Betts, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, who is traveling with May. She said the EU makes up 30 percent of Scotch whisky exports.
Kenyatta said two agreements signed on Thursday — one to enhance military cooperation, the other for Britain to return assets and proceeds of corruption to Kenya — indicated the close ties between the two countries.
Kenyan troops are part of a 22,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force fighting in neighboring Somalia against al-Shabaab Islamist militants. AU troops landed in Mogadishu more than a decade ago and Somali forces are supposed to eventually take over their duties.
May said she was glad to hear Kenyatta call for a transition from peacekeepers to stronger Somali security forces.
Kenyatta, who was re-elected for a second term after a bloody and prolonged elections season, said his government’s fight against graft is important for national unity and his legacy.
Corruption drains billions of dollars from the state every year in Kenya, and foreign businessmen complain it is hard to get things done without paying bribes.
May also announced Britain will set up a cyber center in Nairobi to help authorities fight online child sex abuse by tracking the sharing of abusive images on the internet.
“Already, British terrorists and child abusers are in UK jails because of our cooperation,” she said.
Margaret Thatcher was the last British prime minister to visit Kenya, in 1988.
Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan and William James in London and Cecilie Kallestrup in Nairobi; Additional reporting and writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Angus MacSwa