Obama Finally Arrives in Africa

Obama's trip to meet with African business leaders was a long time coming.

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Nimna Diayte, head of the Senegalese Federation of Corn Producers, answers President Obama’s questions at a food expo Friday, June 28, 2013, in Dakar aimed at highlighting food security and nutrition. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
President Obama in Senegal, where he hopes to drum up U.S. investment opportunities.

As I write, President Obama is in flight between Senegal and South Africa. Tomorrow, as he and his family move between Pretoria and Cape Town, I will be in flight to Tanzania where our two paths will cross late Monday afternoon for a few brief moments. I note this for reasons of transparency.

The president will address a meeting of East African and American business leaders organized by my own organization. We have worked carefully with the White House in organizing the meeting, where the president will address about 150 key business leaders of one of Africa's most economically dynamic regions. He is expected to announce new policies and initiatives by the United States government in support of greater trade and investment between and among the countries of Africa and the United States. 

Prior to that address, he will meet privately for a dialogue with a group of approximately 25 CEOs from the United States and Africa. The roster contains some of America's best known corporate names, as well as some of Africa's most important business leaders. It is designed to be an opportunity for the president to hear the concerns of these key business leaders.

The discussions have been a very long time in coming, but the important thing is that they are now being held. The American business communities engaged in Africa have been frustrated for some time by the level of discourse within and with the administration on U.S. business engagement with Africa, as much as Africa has been frustrated by a man they view as an African son who has not returned to the continent, other than a brief stop-over in Ghana en-route to Washington from Moscow in his first year as American president. 

Now, finally, it all comes to a head, and many on both sides of the Atlantic hope that this will indeed be the “first of many trips to Africa" by the president, as was said by now U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman at our annual meeting in March. 

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Four years ago, the U.S. was passed by China as the largest trader with Africa. It is now estimated that China's overall trade in Africa may be four or more times that of the U.S. Other investor nations are also more engaged in Africa now, as it is seen as the last investment frontier on Earth. India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Korea and Malaysia have all begun to strengthen their economic ties with Africa. 

I am not so sure that Africa is the last frontier, as Central Asia will certainly need investment over time; but its time clearly is not now. It is Africa's time, and for the sake of our own national interests, the United States needs to be far more engaged in Africa than it is. Jobs in America depend on our ability to more actively engage with Africa's fifty-four nations, and for that reason alone, it is America's time to engage in Africa as it has never done before. Nations also will naturally gravitate towards those nations that invest in their future and in their economies. 

The United States cannot afford to take one-fourth of the world's nations for granted politically, either. We have been far too slow in moving away from traditional development assistance and into a new era of trade and investment with Africa. That has to change, and we hope that the president's visit will be a benchmark in that change.

No nation in Africa, including South Africa, is meeting its current energy needs. In Africa's most populous country, Nigeria, only 20 percent of its current energy needs are being met. The majority of homes in Africa also still lack electricity. Traditional aid does not address this critical problem. Without power, investment will lag. Along with adequate nutrition, power is one of the most basic needs of any African. 

Therefore, I expect the president to place considerable emphasis on an American initiative to help develop Africa's power supply, with special attention to renewable non-fossil fueled energy. The call for renewable energy has been a benchmark of Obama rhetoric in the U.S. and it will certainly be part of his initiative for Africa, a continent suited perfectly for solar power, natural gas and geothermal energy. While natural gas is a fossil fuel, it is far cleaner than coal and petroleum. In East Africa,  especially, there are abundant new sources of natural gas, as well as geothermal sources created by the Great Rift that continues to slowly split the continent. This is one reason Tanzania was chosen as one of the countries to be visited by the president.

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I also expect the president to place emphasis on food security. Tanzania is a partner country in the USG's food security program, and the nation has the potential to feed much of the continent. The fact is that more than 60 percent of the world's unused arable land is in Africa. Africa could easily feed the entire world with an efficient agriculture system, and Tanzania has the potential to be a global leader in agriculture.

No doubt the president will also address education and its link to IT businesses. Cell phones, solar driven computers and new technologies are already being used on a continent bereft of normal electricity. The market for U.S. innovators such as Microsoft, IBM and Oracle is almost unlimited. Those companies will be in Tanzania to hear what the president has to say. 

There can be no doubt that this trip, and especially his sojourn in Tanzania, can be very important. Let us all hope he does not disappoint on his first real opportunity to make a difference in U.S.-Africa relations.

Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

  • Read Robert Nolan and Hannah Gais: After Obama's Africa Trip, He Needs an Africa Policy
  • Read Larry Hanauer and Lyle Morris: Obama Can Counter China by Bringing Africa Business
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