Digital Press Briefing with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves on the Outcomes of the AGOA Forum 2023 – United States Department of State

MODERATOR:  Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub in Johannesburg, South Africa.  I welcome our participants logging in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion.  Today, we are very pleased to be joined by the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves.  Deputy Secretary Graves will discuss his participation in the ongoing African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA Forum, two-day ministerial meeting in South Africa, which is happening today and tomorrow, and his role co-hosting the event’s robust one-day Private Sector Forum.  This marks the deputy secretary’s second visit to the continent and an important follow-up to the successful U.S.-Africa Business Forum with the goal of promoting inclusive economic growth and supply chain resilience on both sides of the Atlantic. 

We will begin today’s briefing with opening remarks from Deputy Secretary Graves, then we will turn to your questions.  We do have a very busy schedule here in Johannesburg at the AGOA Forum, and so the deputy secretary has been generous with his time; we do have about a half an hour, so we’re going to try to keep – if we can keep all the questions as brief as possible, that would be super helpful. 

So to kick off today’s on-the-record call, I will turn it over to Deputy Secretary Graves for his opening remarks. 

DEPUTY SECRETARY GRAVES:  Well, thank you so much.  Hello, everyone, and thank you all for joining us for today’s press call rounding out our trip to Johannesburg, South Africa.  This trip marks my second successful visit to the African continent, where I’ve been able to resume productive dialogues around the importance of our African allies to the global economy and how the U.S. has been able to prioritize trade over aid.  But before I begin discussing the trip, let me give a little bit just to set the stage. 

Fostering new economic engagement with African countries is a top priority for the Biden-Harris administration.  Shared, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth has been at the forefront of the President’s goals at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in December and everything since.  And since that summit, the administration has helped close 75 new commercial trade deals between the United States and African countries, for a total estimated value of $5.7 billion in two-way trade and investment.   

Earlier this year, I announced the Department of Commerce’s Africa Strategy, which will help create even more economic opportunities for business, workers, and communities on both sides of the Atlantic, helping to promote supply chain resilience and economic security for the U.S. and African countries.  The goals of that strategy are clear:  We aim to strengthen and expand bilateral relationships across the continent, particularly democracies, through MoUs and commercial and investment dialogues. 

To also implement President Biden’s Digital Transformation with Africa Initiative, we’re also going to offer technical assistance and support for improving the commercial enabling environment for businesses through our Commercial Law Development Program and our Patent and Trademark Office.  We’re providing support by sharing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate data and other resources with African weather services.  And we’re supporting the role of diaspora-owned firms, a unique source of competitive advantage for the U.S., through our Global Diversity Export Initiative. 

Our strategy is comprehensive, and we’re going to make inroads – major inroads – in driving our shared economic success.   

This week, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in the 20th AGOA Forum, where I and my team have been able to engage with stakeholders from across the continent around fostering a commercial enabling environment, expanding our commercial service footprint, expanding trade missions and reverse trade missions and MoUs, and growing the deal pipeline.   

We also spoke about the U.S. whole-of-government approach to work with African countries to build an infrastructure capable of unleashing the full power of digital technologies, connectivity, and trade.  Additionally, we made sure to emphasize the indispensable role our private sector partners play in meeting the most pressing global challenges.   

At its core, though, all of these conversations and efforts are about realizing equitable and inclusive growth.  This partnership is creating a once-in-a-generation opportunity for our people and our communities to live to their full economic potential.  To that end, we believe trade policies should benefit not only those at the top, but also foster inclusive and sustainable development.  We believe they should support regional integration and ensure that all people, including and especially workers, benefit from the global economy as we rebuild from the pandemic, to allow them to live – to lead lives of dignity.   

But most of all, we believe that our commitment to working with our partners and allies in Africa will lead to future prosperity for us all.  By recognizing and working toward our shared commercial priorities, from improving clean energy to advancing the digital economy, from creative industries to critical minerals, and promoting economic growth, we’ll ensure a global economy that works for everyone. 

And with that, I look forward to answering any of your questions. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Deputy Secretary Graves.  So we’ll now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing.   

So for our first question we have a submitted question from Mr. Jean-Pierre Afadhali of Pan African Visions in Kenya.  And Jean-Pierre asks:  “What are the U.S. market priorities in Africa in terms of products and sectors?” 

DEPUTY SECRETARY GRAVES:  Well, we know that U.S. companies small and large know that Sub-Saharan Africa is a vital export market, and it’s really a key sourcing destination going forward.  So in 2020, the top five products that were imported by the U.S. private sector from Africa were vehicles, machinery, chemicals, fruits and nuts, and wine.  And the U.S. private sector exports, mainly machinery, aircraft, vehicles, cereals, and plastics.  But our priority markets going forward focus on things that the President outlined at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, including sustainability, clean tech, digital economy, cyber security, and of course the creative industries.   

And that’s why we at the Commerce Department have taken steps like through our Minority Business Development Agency, where we’ve launched a personal care and cosmetics trade promotion program that’s going to link small- and medium-sized diaspora companies throughout the continent to people – excuse me, to create strong business-to-business relationships and people-to-people ties.   

We recognize that the strength of the American economy is built off of small and medium enterprises, and connecting those same small- and medium-sized enterprises to small- and medium-sized enterprises on the continent will help us grow both of our economies.  And just yesterday in fact – or, excuse me, earlier today I met a South African entrepreneur and she had a great story to tell.  She was trying to deal with a health issue that was affecting her, and she learned that asparagus could be a helpful part of a healthy lifestyle for her and could help her deal with the repercussions of her health issues.   

What she then realized in just growing asparagus for her own use was that she had a commercial opportunity.  So she used her own savings and money from friends and family, and she started a business, a farming business, to grow the asparagus.  She had no previous knowledge of farming, but she learned to do it through, of all things, YouTube.  And that’s why we have to do this the right way.  We’re prioritizing these markets, but we’re also investing in the infrastructure that will allow people like this – like this asparagus-making young entrepreneur – to not only tap into the market here in Africa but to sell all across the globe. 

I was also able to visit a U.S. company, Equinix, which is a major data center infrastructure company, where they’re building a major data hub here in South Africa, investing $160 million in South Africa.  It’s going to create jobs here as well as jobs back home in the United States, and importantly it’s helping to create the digital ecosystem that not only will Africans here – will folks here in South Africa need, but across the continent and, frankly, across the globe will be able to tap into to help build a stronger digital ecosystem. 

MODERATOR:  Okay, thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Secretary.  So we do have a couple of live questions here.  I’d like to go first to Joe Bavier of Reuters, if we can open Joe’s mike and let him ask his question. 

QUESTION:  Hi, thank you.  I just wanted to ask how dependent upon AGOA are the gains you mentioned in terms of two-way trade, and are you concerned that a reauthorization will not be passed in time to safeguard those gains, particularly in light of some of the paralysis we’ve seen in Congress of late?   

DEPUTY SECRETARY GRAVES:  Well, thank you so much for that question.  We believe that AGOA is a fantastic opportunity that African businesses and American businesses have tapped into but they haven’t fully realized the potential of AGOA.  So we expect that we can tell a great story of the – what the full potential of AGOA could mean if we are able to fully capitalize on it.   

We believe strongly that – and this is why the President came out with his statement just yesterday on it – that we will get AGOA passed, that it’s critical for the U.S. economy, it’s also critical for the African continent’s economy to renew.  And there is strong bipartisan support on the Hill.   

But the thing to keep in mind is that, as I said, we’re just tapping into the potential of AGOA right now and it’s why we were so excited by the African Continental Free Trade Area that was – that has also recently been put into place.  This is allowing U.S. companies to invest in one part of the continent and tap into suppliers all across the continent to get those supplies that are critical to their production. 

So we think that Congress will pass this, that, as I said, there’s wide bipartisan support, and they’ll do it because they know that it’s good not just for Africa but it’s good for the American economy and for American workers.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Mr. Deputy Secretary.  Okay, so we have a submitted question from Ms. Thamo Kapisa of SABC Channel Africa right here in South Africa.  And that question is:  “Was there any discussion in terms of assisting countries that are lagging behind in terms of manufacturing so that they can be able to trade and benefit by AGOA?”  

DEPUTY SECRETARY GRAVES:  Absolutely.  We’ve had great conversations with our partners all across the continent, recognizing that not every country is in the same place in terms of the – their industrial development, and especially their manufacturing capacity.  So what we have tried to do, and this is something that we do across the U.S. Government, is identify those programs in the U.S. toolkit that would most effectively meet the needs of the businesses in that country, and to connect American businesses as well with those market opportunities.   

So we certainly have talked about the potential of bringing U.S. knowhow, really the supplier and partner of choice across the continent – bringing our companies and our knowhow to bear in building additional capacity, ensuring that we’re building the type of workforce that is able to make processed or finished products so that those then can be sold across the world.  Why is this important?  Because the U.S. believes that we should be investing in these markets, building a stronger middle class across the continent because then they will be able to buy more American products.   

So it’s in our best interest to invest in and support the growth and development of these economies and help them in their industrial development so that they can be better partners, better consumers going forward.  

MODERATOR:  Okay. Thank you once again, Mr. Deputy Secretary.  I’d like to turn to Siphelele Dludla of the Business Report here in South Africa for a live question.  Siphelele, your mic is open.  

QUESTION:  Good afternoon, everyone.  It’s actually — 

MODERATOR:  Getting a little bit of reverb.  If you don’t mind turning off – turning your volume down. 

QUESTION:  Can you hear me?  

MODERATOR:  Yes.  Very good.  

QUESTION:  Right.  So I’m – my question is:  Does the U.S. see AGOA as a deterrent of China’s influence in Sub-Saharan Africa, considering that China is a significant funder of programs on the continent? 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  I think we got the gist of that question.  

DEPUTY SECRETARY GRAVES:  Thank you so much for that question.  We as a country are focused on our partnerships and what we can do together.  We know because – we know that American businesses are the partners of choice because our friends and partners all across the continent tell us that continuously.  They want U.S. investment.  They want U.S. businesses to partner.  So we’re focused on doing our best to make sure that our partners all across this continent have what they need from American companies in terms of our investment – that we’re reducing barriers to entry, that we’re helping to create the type of stable marketplaces that will allow all of our companies, both American and African companies, to succeed.   

And I should just say that that’s why we are providing technical assistance.  That’s why our Commercial Law Development Program, for instance, is providing support to so many African nations.  We know that if you have a level playing field, that U.S. companies will be able to outperform any country – any other business around the world.  So we are doing our best to make sure that our companies see these opportunities, that they aren’t facing internal barriers, and that we’re providing support so that American businesses small to large are connecting with African businesses.  

MODERATOR:  All right.  Thanks very much, Mr. Deputy Secretary.  So unfortunately, our time is very limited today.  We do have an extremely full agenda here on this first day of the AGOA Forum, and so we have time for just one more question.  I see that Joe Davidson of The Washington Post has his hands up, so let’s see if we can open his mic.   

QUESTION:  Yes, thank you very much.  I was wondering if the atmosphere of the AGOA Forum – or if there was any conversation at the forum regarding Ambassador Brigety’s apparently faulty comment several months ago about accusing essentially South Africa of supplying arms to Russia.  And is he attending and participating in the conference? 

DEPUTY SECRETARY GRAVES:  Well, thank you so much for that question.  The ambassador has been here the entire summit.  He spent some time with the president, as did I.  And I will tell you that the conversations that I’ve had with President Ramaphosa, with Minister Patel, and with other members of the South African delegation have been nothing but positive.  We are focused on the great opportunities that we have between us, the deep friendship and shared values between our nations and across the continent.  I think everyone here believes that this is really an inflection point for Africa, and that the United States has a deep and abiding commitment to making sure that the African continent is able to build and grow a more stable economy, a long-lasting economy, and one that allows Africans as well as Americans to live lives of dignity. 

MODERATOR:  All right, thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Secretary.  So I’m delighted that we were able to cover so much ground here today in a short period of time.  I understand that your time is very limited.  Are there any final remarks that you’d like to share with us?  

DEPUTY SECRETARY GRAVES:  Well, I’d just go back to where I just was, that Africa is poised for massive economic growth.  It is the fastest growing continent in the world and also the youngest continent – and getting younger every day.  That’s why it’s so important for us to be well connected because of our shared values and cultural history.  We can tap into the American diaspora, the 46 – excuse me, the African diaspora in America, the more than 46 million people who trace their roots back to Africa.  Those ties will allow us to connect in ways that, frankly, other countries can’t connect with countries all across the continent.   

And we want to be true partners, help the development of the continent, to be here as strong partners, and to make sure that our private sectors are working hand in hand.  And that’s what the U.S. Government is doing, is finding ways that we can leverage all of our resources and tools, all of our programs to make sure that our private sectors are able to work more effectively together. 

MODERATOR:  All right, thank you, once again, Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves, for joining us.  And thanks to all the journalists for participating.  We are one day into a two-day forum, AGOA Forum, and so there’s lots of interesting content to come.  I would like to invite everyone to stay connected with us at our Twitter handle, @AfricaMediaHub.  Also, please contact us at   

And as many of you who have joined us before on hub calls know, we will have a recording and a transcript of today’s briefing.  As soon as we can produce them, we will distribute those to journalists who participated.  So please do stay in touch with us.  We’ll be pushing out a lot more content as this forum concludes tomorrow.  And thanks once again for your interest and for joining us.  So long. 

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