Unlocking and Capturing Trade and Investment Opportunities between Australia and East Africa

Doing Business in East Africa – Africa is changing rapidly

East Africa is seen as an Africa leader in terms of regional integration of its four member countries’ capital markets, its labour market, as well as increased trade and investment integration. Kenya and its neighbours, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda offer good climates for business as well as offering an educated, hard-working and entrepreneurial labour forces and management.

Besides being some of the world’s easiest places to do business, according to the World Economic Forum: Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda all feature strongly for economic growth prospects and have the most integrated trading block in the continent: the East African Community.

There are several reasons why Australian businesses need to focus their attention on doing business and investing in East Africa:

Security Exchanges

There has been a strengthening of regional security exchanges with a number of IPOs listed on the regional bourses. For example in December 2021, the Uganda Securities Exchange (USE) more than doubled in its size, when mobile IT firm MTN Uganda was listed on it, raising an additional USD$150m (AUD$200 million) during its IPO.

Growth of Financial Institutions

Most of the region’s large firms are now financial institutions. This includes Tanzania’s CRDB Bank, which entered the Top 250 largest companies in Africa in 2020. In a single year (2021), it achieved a spectacular 67% growth in its market capitalisation to $433m (AUD$600 million) and now ranks in the Top 200.

Other banks include KCB Group, with a market cap of USD$1,12 billion, Cooperative Bank of Kenya ($656 million), ABSA Bank Kenya ($588 million) and NMB Bank Tanzania ($582 million).

Rise of IT (Information Technology) firms

Little known to Australians, is the rise of IT firms in East Africa. After financial institutions, telecommunication firms are the second biggest business sector in East Africa. It is also the fastest growing sector and soon it will eclipse the financial sector.

Kenya’s Safaricom, an IT firm, is already the region’s largest firm with a market cap of $11,89 billion (AUD$17,1 billion). This is followed by MTN Uganda $1,124 billion (AUD$1,5 billion) and Vodacom Tanzania $743 million (AUD$1 billion).*

Liberalisation of the telecoms industry is creating the space for IT firms to flourish. Governments are also fast-tracking the development of the IT sector. In Rwanda, the government is actively supporting start-ups, as well as developing the perfect environment for global tech firms to invest into their country.

Data centres

Most of Africa’s data are currently stored elsewhere, zipping down undersea cables that often make landfall in cities outside Africa. Now Uganda is changing that, with the establishment of its Raixo Centre in Kampala. The industrial park now houses its first of many data centres. A flurry of investment in data centres are now bringing the internet closer to users, laying the ground for a digital revolution.

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Today, Africa has more internet users than the USA, but only as much data-centre space as Switzerland. Demand for data centres are soaring as more Africans get online.

Capacity on the continent has doubled since 2016 to around 250 megawatts, indicating the measure of capacity.** With a steep rate of growth, it is predicted that another 1,200 megawatts will be needed by 2030.

Clearly there is huge room for Australian investors and businesses to get involved to fill that gap.

The boom is partly driven by regulation. Over two dozen African countries have currently passed data-protection laws or are planning to do so. These laws often require that certain data, such as personal information, to be kept in the country.

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From the above map, it is clear that the four East African countries are high growth economies. All are English speaking, Commonwealth of Nations members, which would bode well for Australians doing business here.

The arrival of global firms

Global firms are sitting up to take notice at what is happening in East Africa. Google and Facebook have both begun projects to lay new cables around Africa’s coasts. Microsoft and Amazon are both bringing their cloud services to the region, and have opened data centres of their own.

These investments are a sign that the world’s biggest companies are starting to take East Africa seriously.

Here are some East African companies worth looking into:

  1. Zipline Kigali – A Rwandan start-up company, which delivers medical supplies using automated drones. Founded in 2014, it has raised USD483 million.
  2. Ampersand Electric Motorcycles – East African start-up that makes better, cheaper and more powerful motorcycles for millions of motorcycle taxis. Their motorcycles are all based on green technology and are fully electric. Founded in 2014, they have raised over USD13,9 million.
  3. OffGridBox – provides renewable energy and clean water in remote areas of regional East Africa. Areas that are far from the main electric supply.
  4. Hence Technologies – a Kigali and London-based firm that utilises data and AI to match firms with external legal service providers.

Besides the above, there are a plethora of other emerging companies ready to do business with Australian investors.

Endnotes:

* Data provided by Emerging Markets Investment Management Limited and also in-house research. Data as at 31/03/2022. Data relates to listed companies only. Listed companies with less than 50% of their revenues in Africa and companies that are not listed or dual-listed on an African exchange were excluded.

** This is according to Xalam Analytics, which tracks the industry.

FURTHER READING

Karanja, M., Leveraging Rwanda’s position as a tech hub, PriceWaterhouseCoopers Rwanda, August 2021

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development,  Increased innovation key to Rwanda’s continued success, UNCTAD, October 2017

Ashimwe, E., Top 10 initiatives that could change Rwanda’s start-up ecosystem in 2022, The New Times, 18 January 2022

Tom Minney, “Safaricom leads ranking of East Africa’s Top 20 companies”, Africa Business, 27 April 2022

The Economist, “Africa is changing so rapidly, it is becoming hard to ignore”, 26 March 2020

The Economist, “Data centres are taking root in Africa”, 4 December 2021 

Author: Viresh Vallabhbhai, International Policy Committee at Professionals in International Trade (PIT). Viresh has served as a former diplomat, with postings in Italy, Malta, Albania, and San Marino. He has also been based in East Africa, where he has been involved in facilitating business to business relationships and identifying investment opportunities for businesses and doing political risk analysis.