Alumna Helen Grant, Member of Parliament for Maidstone and The Weald and trade envoy to Nigeria, shares her memories of her time in Hull and her vision for the future.
It was with enormous pleasure that I received an invitation to write a piece for my alma mater for Black History Month this year.
How appropriate, too, that Hull is the birthplace of William Wilberforce who famously secured the abolition of slavery in UK legislation almost 200 years ago, starting to redress the terrible exploitation and abuse of black people by slave traders in this, and other countries.
As a former Trustee of the Human Trafficking Foundation I know only too well that this campaign is still very much a work in progress.
This October, in the midst of the powerful Black Lives Matter movement, it is therefore perhaps more important than ever that we shine a light on the contributions Black Britons have made to our diverse and vibrant country, and continue to campaign for black people’s freedom from oppression and discrimination around the world.
Appropriately, the start of the 2020 Black History Month also coincided with the 60th anniversary of Nigerian Independence on 1 October. As someone with a Nigerian father and English mother, I am hugely proud of both my Nigerian heritage and my British heritage.
I feel lucky that I can experience two cultures which allow me to (among other things) enjoy a Sunday dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, or my father’s soup with rice and fried plantain, and bit of Fela Kuti playing in the background.
It is right to say that Hull University also played a crucial role in my social and cultural education. For it was here that I first encountered and engaged with international people, as a teenage fresher from Carlisle in the early ‘80s.
Coming from a city where, for a while, I was perhaps the only person with a darker skin, Hull University was a fabulous introduction to diversity and inclusion. Be it in my halls of residence out on the Lawns, or at our mouse-infested student house at De Grey Street, this was a place where we celebrated and embraced difference. The experience set me free to grow and achieve, and I will never forget it.
Coming back to 2020, I had another reason to celebrate this October, when I was appointed by the Prime Minister as his trade envoy to Nigeria. It is no happy coincidence that the UK-Nigeria bond is already strong; we have so much that unites us in terms of our language, our legal system, our time zones and of course our intertwined cultures.
But there is much more we can do to develop that special relationship even further, and I can think of no better way to mark Black History Month than starting the challenge of redoubling our efforts to boost trading relations between our two countries to deliver prosperity for all.
Nigeria is the largest and fastest growing economy in Africa, and with a consumer base of 200 million people and a growing middle-class, it is seen today as one of the most important emerging markets in the world.
It is rich in natural resources; it boasts a mature professional class; its governance is constantly improving and has massive growth areas in sectors such as e-commerce, agri-tech and green investments. And luckily for us, this giant African economy, our friend and ally, is very much open for business.
All of this was well illustrated in January when I attended and chaired two events at the very first UK African Investment Summit held in London. At this unique and ground-breaking event, delegates contributed to our mutual vision for post-Brexit trade opportunities that await us on the continent – it was a huge success where billions of pounds worth of business was done.
And make no mistake, this is very much a two-way street. As someone with African heritage, I know there is much that we Brits can and should learn from Africa, especially when talking about gender gaps in business and innovation.
In the UK, the number of women CEO’s are struggling to nudge the 5% mark, even though access to investment, guidance, and education is amongst the best in the world.
The concentration of female entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, is the highest in the world, despite being a region where many women face serious barriers to equality through lack of access to education and investment.
I witnessed the entrepreneurial spirit of African women for myself earlier this year when I had the pleasure of hosting 15 African female tech founders at the House of Commons, as part of our international tech-hub network.
During an inspiring week-long workshop programme, this group of (already incredibly successful) women had the opportunity to pitch their ideas to UK investors; accelerating their start-ups into scale-ups and creating the businesses of the future.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on both the UK and Nigeria, in social, human and economic terms.
But all this means is that we need to work even harder now to boost trade and investment between our two countries – and it is paramount we do this together. Greater free trade can be a key pillar to an economic recovery from the current crisis for both of our nations.
That is why I am absolutely delighted to become Trade Envoy at such a challenging but equally exciting time for UK-Nigerian relations. I am certain that a strong UK-Nigeria partnership will be a positive force for good across our two nations and I also know that the rich value of my dual cultural heritage, and the life lessons I learned from Hull, will be used to the full in this new role.