John Small, who has died aged 70, was a champion of British investment in Africa as the long-serving chief executive of the Eastern Africa Association.
Founded in 1964 on the initiative of British companies with interests in the region, the Association’s activities gradually extended from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to the less-explored markets of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Burundi, the Seychelles and South Sudan.
John Small – after many years in business in Kenya, where he was born and brought up – became its chief executive in 1999, and helped to build it into a vital bridge between investors, local officialdom, British diplomatic missions and international bodies such as the World Bank and IMF.
Small’s modus operandi – effectively filling a gap left by cuts in government funding for export promotion trips – was to gather and lead groups of British businesspeople on tours into the region, often involving gruelling itineraries, but conducted with self-effacing courtesy and good humour, painstaking attention to logistics, and evident love and respect for the people of Africa, whether they were government ministers or waiters and doormen.
His last investment mission, last February, was to the tiny republic of Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea, a gateway port for Ethiopia and other landlocked territories. Also very much in his sights, after many visits, was the investment opportunity presented by Rwanda, an emerging economy of 12 million citizens with aspirations to become a finance centre for the region.
It was Small’s mantra that private-sector investment, rather than aid, offered developing Africa its most sustainable route out of poverty.
John Charles Small was born in an Army hospital in Kenya on September 25 1949, the son of Major Jack Faulconer Small, a Royal Artillery officer originally from Hastings, and his wife Shirley Anne, née Christian; they had married in Egypt before taking ship to Mombasa to settle in Nairobi.
Having survived a near-fatal bout of the gastric disorder pyloric stenosis in infancy, John was educated at Woodley primary school in Nairobi and later, after his parents moved to Nigeria, as a boarder at Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School – where he excelled at games, but was forbidden by his headmaster (on the grounds that “this boy is an academic”) from having trials with Brighton & Hove Albion FC.
He went on to read Geography at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, with a particular interest in economic development.
He took a first job with the Ford Motor Co at Dagenham while training as a management accountant in his spare time, but in 1977 fulfilled an ambition to join the Commonwealth Development Corporation, and was posted to Papua New Guinea as chief accountant of an oil palm plantation project.
After a brief return to England, Small and his young family went out to Africa in 1981, working first in the Kenyan sugar industry and later in a packaging business there, of which he rose to be chief executive. His first connection with the Eastern Africa Association was as a local board member.
John Small never contemplated retirement or allowed his zeal for the Association’s work to flag: a tireless networker and communicator, he was held in high regard by British government departments and embassies and served as a special adviser to the European Business Council for Africa & Mediterranean.
His last project, originally planned for next month but postponed because of the pandemic, was a mission to introduce British educational institutions and qualification bodies to Rwanda.
Small was also a Brexit campaigner, a low-handicap golfer and former captain of the Karen Country Club in Nairobi, and a keen cook and gardener.
He married, in 1974, Anne Mills, a teacher whom he first met at Cambridge, and who survives him with their three sons.
John Small, born September 25 1949, died July 14 2020
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