The International Perspective
Emma Wade-Smith OBE has been the UK’s Trade Commissioner for Africa since 2018. She is both a flag-bearer for UK businesses and a champion for the African opportunity to the world.
From where she lives in South Africa, Emma Wade-Smith OBE, the UK’s Trade Commissioner for Africa, has seen first hand the impact of Covid on economies and also on FDI. When asked for her outlook, she says that right now it’s quite a mixed picture. Unemployment in countries like Nigeria and South Africa is particularly worrisome. A lot of focus will need to be put on helping small and medium-sized enterprises to spur job creation. Central to this, according to Wade-Smith, are skills. Despite the large number of people on the jobs market, when she does talk to investors, finding the right skills and talent on the continent is still a big concern.
“We hear a lot that companies are struggling to find the talent that they want for their companies and yet we’ve got this extraordinary array of talent on the continent looking for jobs. There’s something of a disconnect between the narrative and the perception and reality. And a disconnect between what employers are seeking and the graduates coming through the system.”
Wade-Smith has spent her whole career in public service. And yet she says that companies and institutions need to get used to people moving jobs every three years or so. When I put to her that a lot of the best talent in Africa seems to shun politics and public service and prefer to work for the private sector, she says that public service offers talent some of the most exciting and diverse work they can find anywhere.
“I’d like to think that we attract some great talent in the British civil service… I’m often blown away by their ability to work in a whole range of different environments, different countries, working on different policy issues and that real ability to understand a complex array of stakeholders, consult, be inclusive, build policies that make a difference. It’s very complicated working in government and I can understand that puts some people off, but I also hope that entices people in.”
The British government, she explains, actually encourages its people to move between public and private sector as they want their people to have private sector exposure and to understand how businesses function and the challenges they face.
“We see a lot more movement these days between the public and private sector and those coming in from the private sector are often quite surprised at how challenging and rewarding it is because of the complexities, because you’re not just dealing with the bottom line, you’re dealing with people’s lives, actually.”
Wade-Smith agrees that, today, graduates need to be more versatile and open, “aware of what is going on in the world around us”. Technology, she adds, has become a real driver of transformation and job creation. As the UK looks to become more globally minded following Brexit, she thinks that British companies looking to invest across Africa can bring experience, expertise, skills and knowledge that can create powerful business partnerships on the continent.
She also hopes that, as skills become the number one asset, that there will be more partnerships between education establishments. It’s already happening in some countries but she’d like to see this extended, including UK universities setting up physical campuses in Africa, something that has already happened in Mauritius, Egypt and Rwanda. Educational exchanges, she argues, are the best step to forging strong commercial links between two countries.
What advice would she give to 17- or 18-year-olds in Africa on what they should study; are there any sectors that the UK’s Department for International Trade (DIT) team in Africa are paying close attention
to? Wade-Smith says one thing for sure is that we need to have the right policies on the continent to attract top dollar investment. So making sure a pool of talent going into the civil service is key. In the
private sector, DIT is working to strengthen the manufacturing base, something that will become more attractive with the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
The technology and coding side of tech is something she would be looking at. Engineering is also a really exciting prospect, and the challenge she feels is that both tech and engineering are still industries dominated by men. Healthcare has obviously become an important consideration and will attract massive investments. And lastly, she adds, financial and professional services “because money makes the world go round and lawyers enable that to happen.”