Business Opportunities Open In Africa. Will Black Americans Seize The Moment?
Africa has been stereotyped as poor and politically unstable for decades, but countries like China and Russia continue to make headway into many of its 54 nations. But more recently, America is finally beginning to see more opportunities open up for business ventures across the continent. In December, at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit President Joe Biden hosted African leaders and vowed to build robust economic ties with those nations.
The administration announced in July that those efforts have borne fruit, including the approval of $9 million in small business loans to support American companies doing business with African countries. But that also means there is a new chance for Black American business to create ties with the Motherland.
Business opportunities for Black American entrepreneurs
The continent is bursting with business opportunities for Black Americans looking to invest and build businesses, according to Faye Tillery, a Georgia entrepreneur who owns and operates multiple companies in Kenya, including construction and coffee enterprises.
“We don’t have much experience on the continent of owning our birthright and our legacy there. We don’t know much about it because that history was stripped away from us. But this is a way that we can still invest and reap some of the benefits,” she told BET.com.
Tillery is not alone in calling for inclusiveness. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched the Advance with Africa initiative, through its U.S.-Africa Business Center (USAfBC), to disseminate information in the American business community about the ripeness of African markets for partnerships and expansion.
“For American companies considering expanding into Africa, it’s critical to make space for minority entrepreneurs — including those from communities of color and diaspora communities — to take part in the African business growth story,” reads a Chamber blog post from a February panel discussion on how American companies can enter the African business market.
Numerous business opportunities abound in Africa. The continent’s growth prospects “are among the world’s brightest,” according to a United Nations report. It names six African countries on the list of the 12 fastest-growing nations in the world: Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Rwanda. In addition to the continent’s vast resources, Africa is an attractive business destination for its abundant youthful populations.
Thierry Wandji, the president and CEO of Cybastion, a global cyber security company serving the public and private sectors told BET.com that he launched his company in 2019 with the intent of doing business in Africa.
The Cameroon native earned his doctorate in systems engineering from George Washington University and worked for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. “It was always my plan to expand into Africa because I was born and raised in Africa, and I saw all the needs firsthand.”
He credits the U.S. government with enabling him to expand his Durham, N.C.- based company into several African countries, including Burkina Faso, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon. Although Wandji has roots in Africa, he faced numerous challenges growing his business.
But American officials helped open the doors. After the introductions were made, Wandji spent two years pitching his proposals to African government officials and figuring out financing for the projects that were too expensive for governments facing economic challenges.
He said closing business deals with private sector companies in Africa was less daunting, as cash-strapped African governments have turned to China.
Indeed, the United States is playing catch-up with Beijing. Reuters reported that in 2012 China-Africa trade amounted to $254 billion, compared to $63.3 billion in trade between Africa and the United States. At the same time, China has been accused of creating debt traps with poor African countries, which Beijing has denied.
Tillery has had a similar experience with U.S. government officials in Africa facilitating business deals on the continent. She has worked with U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman who promotes U.S. – Kenya business ties.
“I had never known an ambassador who has gotten involved in helping you grow your small and medium-sized businesses,” Tillery said. “Usually, they mainly help major corporations. But Ambassador Whitman has asked, ‘What can I do to help?’”
Overcoming the hurdles
Despite support from the U.S. government, there are still some real obstacles to doing successful business in Africa.
“You need to know the environment, and you need to spend time there. That’s why it’s hard to conduct business in Africa because you need to be physically present. You need to be able to understand what you’re dealing with,” Wandji admonished.
He said business in Africa is conducted on the basis of trust. It will be difficult if African business people feel that they cannot trust you.
“If you’re an African American who has never been to Africa, it’s better to partner with somebody who knows Africa. An African American born in the United States who never went to Africa is no different than a White American who was born here and never went to Africa.”
Tillery said she facilitates her beckoning of Black American entrepreneurs to Africa through the HiSo Collective, her luxury travel and tourism company that also organizes economic empowerment trips to Kenya. The company also provides relocation services.
Tillery organized a Facebook group with more than 32,000 members named Blaxit Tribe for Black Americans who want to leave the United States to live abroad.
“Many of those people and others I’ve met want to move to the continent of Africa and want to invest,” she said. “Some people are not keen on moving, but they are keen on having investments and expanding their businesses to Africa and other places.”
Their entrepreneurial and investment dreams are wide-ranging. Tillery said most of them are interested in real estate investments in Kenya. But others relocated there to provide services, from yoga classes to health care and high-end clothing stores to American and European expatriates living in Kenya.
“If anybody’s going to own these companies, and if they’re going to be foreigners, they may as well be us – people who have some sort of birthright there in that space,” she said.
Wandji said now is a great time for Black American entrepreneurs to explore business ventures across Africa. He pointed to the military coups in Niger and other former French colonies as a sign of new opportunities for Black American investors.
“They are tired of seeing French people coming and exploiting the resources. They’re tired of seeing a government that is letting White folks come in and exploit the resources they want. Africans want Black folks to come back and work with them and invest in creating wealth working with them. They’re welcoming that,” Wandji said.