First US-Africa Leaders Summit to focus on trade, business

World Today

On Monday, leaders from nearly 50 African nations will converge on Washington, D.C. for the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. The event aims to turn a corner for U.S. engagement on the continent.

For many Americans, Africa is a continent far away, full of images of poverty, hunger, political refugees — and a need for foreign aid.

Former U.S. diplomat to Africa Todd Moss warns those are the pictures of the past.

“The U.S. now has a greater national security interest in Africa than ever before, and their greater economic opportunity in Africa for American investors than ever before,” Moss said.

But the U.S. has more competition than ever. Nations from Turkey to Malaysia, from India to China are investing at a rapid pace in infrastructure, schools, and banking.

Aubrey Hruby of the Atlantic Council spent eight years trying to help American companies invest in Africa.

“Unfortunately, there’s been a lack of interest for the last 10 years from American companies, except for the major ones who’ve done business there like Coca Cola,” Hruby said.

“The African’s turn to the West for their security issues more than turning to China and that is different than when it comes to economics,” said Africa policy analyst Nii Akuettah, noting that African countries were increasingly turning to China for economic matters.

Top U.S. officials want the first U.S.-Africa Leader Summit to change that dynamic. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice said, “We’re all working flat out to make this summit a great success.” But President Barack Obama won’t be meeting with any African leader one on one, in contrast to what leaders from China and other nations have offered.

“We do risk lowering the U.S. in their eyes as a partner, but in my experience, that’s not anything new,” Hruby said.

Moss said American companies also lack the support that other businesses get from their host governments. “Just to give you an example, the Chinese Export-Import Bank is many many times larger than the U.S. Export-Import Bank,” he said. “So those kind of circumstances just put U.S. companies at a disadvantage.”

The U.S. is focused on building on a program announced by President Obama last summer to attract private investment for power generation in sub-saharan Africa. A whole day of the upcoming summit will be dedicated to business development at a time when the African middle class is becoming a key consumer market.

“We’re seeing this once-in-a-lifetime transition of people who are buying their first TV, fridge, car in the family,” Moss said. “That explosion in income and demand is going to create a tremendous amount of opportunity in consumer goods, energy, and services.”

Agenda for the U.S.-Africa Business Forum

Agenda for the U.S.-Africa Leader Summit

White House Fact Sheet: Power Africa

Forum on China-Africa Cooperation

Brookings: U.S.-China-Africa Relations