Last reviewed 8 May 2019

Years of sustained growth and investment are opening up new opportunities for exporters in Eastern and Southern Africa. Tim Hiscock reports on four markets that could be rewarding in the longer term.

Africa is the poorest continent in the world. In 2014, Barack Obama claimed that the entire economic output of Africa was less than that of France. According to official statistics he was right, although reliably measuring the true GDP of many African countries is not easy. But even acknowledging that these figures are comparable is mind blowing. Africa has a combined population of 1.2 billion people, twenty times that of France.

And yet, Africa is changing. The continent has achieved economic growth rates that are well above global averages for the last twenty years. It has outstripped growth of every other continent in every one of the last ten years, and was the only continent to avoid going into recession in 2008. The consistent growth is making a lasting change to the continent. Literacy levels have doubled in a generation (while still being the lowest in the world). Internet access in Africa has trebled in just eight years, and the proportion of children completing basic education has also grown substantially.

In pursuit of free trade agreements for a post Brexit Britain, a continuity trade agreement was settled with a group of four African countries in the East and Southern Africa Region. These four countries, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and Zimbabwe, show very different accounts of the disparate nature of Africa in 2019. Two of these countries have income levels that are similar to the developed world, while the other two are among the world’s poorest states. Seychelles has one of the highest levels of internet access in the world. In contrast Zimbabwe, which has achieved creditable growth in internet access, has suffered denial of access by the government in its recent attempts to quell civil unrest.

But looked at from the perspective of business opportunities, one thing these four countries have in common is strong economic growth. As shown in the table, growth last year across these countries ranged from 3.7% to 5.3%. And while British exports are modest, they have grown by more than twenty percent in each of the last two years.


Madagascar is the largest and most populous of these countries. The world’s fourth largest island (almost three times larger than Great Britain), it was one of the last major land masses to be inhabited by humans, who began to settle here between 350 and 550 AD. A former French colony, Madagascar regained its independence in 1960. Despite the country’s close proximity to Africa, it has a very different plant and animal life, in fact 90% of the flora and fauna in Madagascar are found nowhere else. The country’s leading export is vanilla, accounting for 26% of the total by value. After oil, its key imports are foodstuffs, followed by motor vehicles. Top UK exports last year were pumps and engines, followed by textiles for the island’s clothing industry, surgical instruments and electrical machinery. But the UK doesn’t feature highly in the list of exporters to Madagascar, supplying just over 1% of the country’s imports, well behind the country’s key suppliers who are China, France, India and South Africa.

In spite of successive years of economic development, Madagascar is still very poor by world standards. On purchasing power parity terms, Madagascar’s US$1,600 per capita places it in 218th place out of 228 world countries, making it the poorest country of the four. Top UK imports from Madagascar are clothing, followed by vanilla and nickel.


Mauritius lies seven hundred miles to the East of Madagascar, in the Indian ocean, and is geographically vary remote from mainland Africa. The 1.3 million population of this small island enjoys a much higher standard of living than the average African country. At US$22,300 GDP per capita, Mauritius is very much mid table on a global scale, just below Uruguay and just above Bulgaria. A key strength of the modern economy of Mauritius is its multi sectoral base, made up principally of industrial, financial and tourism activity, although processed fish and sugar remain the country’s key exports. Mauritius also has a burgeoning clothing industry, that accounts for nearly 20% of exports. After petroleum, the key imports are fish, cars, aircraft and medicine. Key British exports are electrical machinery and vehicles. Sadly, UK exports of cars to Mauritius fell sharply in 2018 to £4 million. The share of the market enjoyed by UK exporters was little better than for Madagascar at just 2%, well behind the leading suppliers who were China, India, France and South Africa.


The tiny archipelago of Seychelles lies 1200 miles north of Mauritius, due east of Kenya. Economically, the population of Seychelles are the wealthiest of this group, enjoying a per capita income (PPP) of US$29,300. This puts Seychelles at the 70th wealthiest country in the world, just ahead of Malaysia and just behind Poland. Seychelles is highly dependent on the tourism industry, which accounts for more than 50% of economic activity. The government has encouraged further investment in tourism facilities while also leading diversification into financial, information and communication services as well as renewable energy. Aside from tourism and other services, processed fish account for more than half of Seychelles’ physical exports. Key imports are boats, aircraft, machinery and cars. The UK’s close historical connections (The Seychelles is a Commonwealth member) partly account for the UK’s strong market share here, with 11% of all imports coming from the UK, second only to France who accounted for 18%. Vehicles and aircraft account for the majority of British exports to Seychelles.


Zimbabwe has gone through considerable changes since first declaring independence from the UK in 1965. President Mugabe was elected President in the country’s first universal elections in 1979 and remained in power until 2017. The economy of Zimbabwe has suffered under the changes brought in by Mugabe’s regime, and widespread poverty has devastated the country. The GDP per capita (PPP) of US$2,300 put Zimbabwe at 203 out 228 countries, just above Ethiopia. The economy of Zimbabwe has encountered massive swings over the last ten years, initially achieving double digit growth that was fuelled by the mining sector before falling into recession. In 2017 the economy achieved strong growth of 3.7%. Zimbabwean exports are heavily reliant on tobacco, which accounts for just over half of the 2018 total. Other key exports are metals and diamonds. The mix of imported goods is very wide, with Zimbabwe relying heavily on overseas suppliers for most manufactured goods. Electrical equipment, medicines and cars feature toward the top of a very long list of imported goods. Only 1.2% of Zimbabwean imports originate from the UK. South Africa dominates the market, supplying 62% of all imports, followed by China (14%) and India (4%). China is also Zimbabwe’s biggest export market, supplying the country with much needed raw materials, and also reflecting the increasing level of Chinese investment in Zimbabwe. UK exports grew strongly in 2018, with vehicles being the largest sector (cars and tractors). Other key exports included machinery, books and beverages. The four countries give a convenient overview of the diverse and changing nature of business in Africa. The continent as a whole is going through a period of strong economic growth and change as well as rapid population growth. These factors are predicted to make the continent a much greater force in the world economy in the next twenty years, pointing to considerable new opportunities for suppliers as the consumer power of Africa continues to grow. Not surprisingly, the continent will continue to present particular challenges for exporters, with many countries still struggling with political unrest and corruption. But particularly for exporters with an eye on longer term opportunities, these and many other African countries are likely to be of increasing interest.

Central and Eastern Africa




per capita

UK Exports

UK imports


US$ Bn