The flows of Africa in London

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Academia, education, culture, business, advocacy, and engagement—how well does Africa flow along the Thames?

“Africa has a very high profile in London for some, very low for others.” According to Nick Westcott, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a former director at the Royal African Society (RAS), the perception of Africa in London varies. While some individuals hold Africa in high regard, there are also negative stereotypes that need to be addressed.

This is why the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Africa (APPG) was formed, consisting of members from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, to foster a mutually beneficial relationship between Africa and the UK. The RAS played a crucial role in establishing this group in January 2003 and continues to oversee its operations as the secretariat. With over 200 members, APPG for Africa is recognised as one of the most active and independent APPGs in Parliament, as stated by the RAS. Chi Onwurah MP is the APPG for Africa Chair.

Chi Onwurah MP is the APPG for Africa Chair. Photo: UK Parliament.

MPs and Lords have the opportunity to participate in discussions with both UK and African policymakers through various events and programs. The ongoing Africa advocacy initiative, a continuous effort by the APPG, focused on fostering a partnership between the UK and Africa to achieve a just energy transition in Africa. The “UK-African Partnerships for Just Energy Transitions in Africa” is supported by Oxfam and the Royal African Society. Over the past months, three meetings were held to collect verbal testimonies. Numerous scholars and professionals also submitted written contributions to supplement the research. In the upcoming session, the APPG for Africa plans to present policy suggestions to the Majesty’s Government, addressing strategies to tackle this crucial matter.

The current flood death toll in Kenya highlights the urgent need for a just energy transition in Africa. In an insightful research report published in December 2022, titled “Towards a just energy transition: Implications for communities in low and middle-income countries”,  Oxfam explains this stark climate reality and the actions required. The report said: “More frequent or intense floods, heatwaves, wildfires, droughts and typhoons devastate people’s homes, livelihoods and the natural world. A clean energy transition is urgently needed to reduce carbon emissions and prevent the impacts from worsening. Wealthy countries have the prime historic responsibility for the climate crisis and therefore for its mitigation.”

Culture and learning

Driven by the will of the City of London and the British Council, “Africa in London” emerged as the pre-eminent event dedicated to showcasing African culture and creativity in the bustling city. In collaboration with the Africa Centre, the Black Cultural Archives, and the Royal African Society, this event was successfully organised multiple times before a larger gathering took place in central London. Known as “Africa on the Square”, this event became an annual celebration held in Trafalgar Square every October during Black History Month, attracting an impressive crowd of over 25,000 participants. 

Serving as a prominent cultural and heritage hub for Africa in London, the Africa Centre fulfils a range of objectives. Photo: The Africa Centre.

Serving as a prominent cultural and heritage hub for Africa in London, the Africa Centre fulfils a range of objectives, including advocating for African excellence across various sectors, fostering impactful global partnerships, and highlighting the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that propels individuals of African descent forward. 

Located in Brixton, south London, the Black Cultural Archives was established in 1981 by historian and educator Len Garrison. As the leading institution in the UK dedicated to promoting black commitment, its primary goal is to collect, preserve, and celebrate the narratives of individuals of African and Caribbean descent in the country. By doing so, it aims to inspire and empower individuals, communities, and society as a whole. The Black Cultural Archives plays a crucial role in providing knowledge and resources on black history to universities, schools, and both private and public institutions. It collaborates with public bodies to deliver sustainable and dynamic projects. Through its unique approach to learning, the Black Cultural Archives enables learners to gain a deeper understanding of how the past influences our perceptions of the present and future.

“Changing the narrative takes time, but we have made a start, and the new government should be better,” according to Nick Westcott, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a former director at the Royal African Society (RAS). Photo: SOAS

Established a century ago in London, the Royal African Society (RAS) is a charitable organisation dedicated to fostering reciprocal comprehension and communication among individuals in the United Kingdom, Africa, and the global community, and bringing about positive change. The RAS’s objective is to magnify the voices and concerns of Africa in various sectors such as academia, business, politics, the arts, and education. They aim to cultivate more balanced and knowledgeable relations between Africa and the UK. Through various events, publications, and digital platforms, the RSA disseminates insights and sparks discussions, reaching a global network of over a million individuals. Professor Nick Westcott, the former director of the RAS expressed his belief: “Changing the narrative takes time, but we have made a start, and the new government should be better.”

Alongside the three organisations mentioned above, Doyle Wham, the sole and pioneering gallery in the UK dedicated to contemporary African photography, emerged on the scene in October 2020. As of March 2022, the gallery has established its permanent presence in Shoreditch, London. The gallery showcases a diverse range of artists, both up-and-coming and well-established, hailing from Africa and the wider African diaspora. Reflecting the interplay between photography and various cultural realms such as fashion, art, and music, the gallery places a special emphasis on this intersection in its programming. By hosting frequent exhibitions and events, introducing fresh talents, and cultivating a strong collector community, Doyle Wham is fully committed to honouring the art of photography in all its manifestations and propelling the contemporary African photography market forward.

Academia and education

A renowned institution for African studies, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London has been a vital educational hub since its establishment in 1916. The Centre of African Studies (CAS) at SOAS holds the prestigious distinction of being the largest centre of expertise on Africa outside of the continent itself. With its inception in 1965, the CAS has played a crucial role in coordinating, stimulating, and promoting interdisciplinary study, research, and discourse on Africa within the university. Additionally, it strives to foster a broader understanding of African issues.

The Sudanese-British Zeinab Badawi is currently the President of SOAS. Photo SOAS.

The centre encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including Anthropology and Sociology, Development, Economics, History, History of Art and Archaeology, Law, Linguistics, Music, Politics and International Studies, as well as Religious and Philosophies. The Sudanese-British Zeinab Badawi is currently the President of SOAS. She has also reached a remarkable achievement by becoming the best-selling nonfiction author in Britain right now with her fascinating book, the best-selling non-fiction “An African History of Africa.”

To deepen its engagement with African Studies, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) is actively participating in the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa (FLIA). This institute is dedicated to conducting groundbreaking research, providing instruction, and hosting public events that reinforce LSE’s enduring commitment to positioning Africa as a central focal point in discussions and understandings of global matters. Each year, LSE students organise the LSE Africa Summit, which covers a wide range of topics, including education, digitalisation, and development. Notably, the keynote address at last year’s summit was delivered by Sakaja Arthur Johnson, the Governor of Nairobi.

Business 

Africa House is dedicated to fostering the growth and long-term success of African and UK companies. This not-for-profit social enterprise was established to facilitate direct investment in both the UK and African markets, as well as the Middle East. Through organising trade missions and events, Africa House aims to connect partners in Africa and London, creating valuable opportunities for collaboration and economic development.

In addition to the Africa House, a collection of chambers of commerce exists between the United Kingdom and various African nations. One notable example is the UK-Ghana Chamber of Commerce, honoured with the title of International Chamber of the Year. Formed in 2016, the UK-Ghana Chamber of Commerce (UKGCC) catalyses trade between the UK and Ghana. This esteemed private sector organisation is dedicated to providing invaluable trade and commerce assistance to businesses in both countries.

Adjoba Kyiamah, the Executive Director of the UK-Ghana Chamber of Commerce (UKGCC). Photo: UKGCC.

The UKGCC offers unparalleled assistance to its members through the exchange of knowledge and ideas, establishing platforms for fostering stronger connections and facilitating interactions with government entities. A primary objective of the UKGCC is to position Ghana as a vital economic ally for the UK, serving as both an export market and import source, as well as an attractive investment destination. Its primary purpose is to advance the business interests of its members in both countries and generate additional avenues for business growth. 

During our conversation, Adjoba Kyiamah, the Executive Director, highlighted the Chamber’s robustness. She underscored that “Our nomination and subsequent win as the BCC’s International Chamber of the Year 2023 is based on several factors. Chief amongst them is how we have been able to hone in on the needs of our member companies and provide bespoke solutions. It has required constant engagement with member companies and leveraging our wide network of stakeholders, including both the UK and Ghana. government agencies and civil society organisations; and the global network of British Chambers of Commerce to deliver meaningful solutions. The judges were wowed by the UKGCC’s keen eye for detail and the way it had wired into the issues that made a difference to its members. They praised its hard work to promote trade with the UK and its impressive advocacy work around tax laws.”

To conclude an African tour in London, it is important to reconnect with Professor Nick Wescott, who extensively explored the condition of Africa within the city. “On a social level, Africa in London is very strong. But it still has to assert itself politically.” That’s just it.

Alain Metodjo 

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