Engaging with Africa starts on Main Street

Engaging with Africa starts on Main Street    | The Hill

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FILE – Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo speaks before President Joe Biden to African leaders gathered for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Dec. 14, 2022, in Washington. The government’s $52 billion investment to develop advanced computer chips has become a rare source of bipartisan agreement. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell voted for it because of its importance for national security. But Raimondo says the U.S. needs a whole-of-society effort for the investments to succeed. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

“Opportunity does not wake those who are asleep.” So opines a proverb from East Africa, where the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s U.S.-Africa Business Center recently returned from Kenya, where at the invitation of Kenya’s government it hosted a policy dialogue on the African Continental Free Trade Area, the world’s newest and biggest trade bloc. Before that, in March, the U.S Chamber led a delegation of over 30 business executives to East Africa to deepen their investments on the continent. 

The business delegation came on the heels of our respective offices—the U.S. Chamber and the Greater Houston Partnership—joining forces to show Houston businesses how they too can succeed in Africa, during the first stop this year of the U.S. Chamber’s “Advance with Africa” roadshow.  

The African continent has a growing middle class and burgeoning population set to nearly double by 2050 to 2.5 billion. By then, the continent will be home to one in four of the world’s consumers, half of them under age 25, and its GDP has been projected by then to climb as high as $29 trillion. Africa’s fast-growing population and markets present vast possibilities for American business and the chance for mutually beneficial opportunities —from Tanzania to Texas.  

Africa’s potential as a growth frontier has been misunderstood by many for too long, but that has not been the case with the U.S. Chamber and in Houston. The U.S. Chamber has commended the Biden administration’s enhanced focus on Africa while also recommending how the U.S., following the success of the December 2022 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, can honor the president’s vow to go “all in” on Africa. In addition, the U.S. Chamber was proud to host the U.S.-Africa Business Forum, the summit’s official private sector forum, where American and African firms achieved over $15 billion in trade and investment deals and partnerships. Now, ensuring that we continue meaningful commercial engagement with Africa long after the Summit will be the true test of its success. The U.S. government took a step in this direction by recently appointing President Biden’s former National Security Council Senior Director for Africa Dana Banks, who also directed the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, to the Chamber’s U.S. Africa Business Center as senior advisor, underscoring the recognition from the highest levels of government of the crucial role that business plays in advancing U.S. policy goals across Africa.    

While it is incumbent upon U.S. leaders to uphold their financial and rhetorical commitments to Africa, and for African leaders to continue with market-opening reforms, boosting U.S.-Africa economic ties begins as much on the American and African Main Streets as it does with politicians.  

Houston is proudly home to one of the largest African diasporas in the country, and is Africa’s second largest urban trade partner in the U.S. In 2021, Houston added a Business Forum to its yearly Africa Day, a celebration each May to drive awareness around Africa’s global impact and the many contributions that Houstonians of African descent have made. The annual Africa Day Business Forum expands the already-strong economic linkages between Houston and Africa and helps more enterprises enter the African market, with attendance ranging from Houston small business owners to African Ambassadors alike. Last September, African energy ministers and presidential advisors flocked to Houston to attend the Houston-Africa Energy Summit to further discuss how Houston can fuel Africa’s future. And this month, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner will lead a trade mission to Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana to further cement the city’s role as a critical partner in fulfilling the continent’s demand for energy and goods and services.  

The U.S. Chamber launched the nationwide “Advance with Africa” roadshow last September to increase U.S. businesses’ understanding of commercial opportunities in Africa and transform the narrative around Africa’s business climate. Of crucial importance to both the Chamber and the Greater Houston Partnership is Advance with Africa’s focus on empowering minority- and Black-owned small businesses, ensuring equitable growth for Americans and Africans alike.   

Houston was the ideal city for Advance with Africa to hold its first roadshow of 2023. The hundreds of Houston business executives that joined us left with a greater understanding of how to tap into Africa’s tremendous economic potential and added to the thousands of diverse U.S. companies Advance with Africa has already reached. As advocates of pursuing market-opening trade with Africa at all levels of government, we were also inspired to see community leaders, staff from congressional offices, federal agencies, and Consular Corps all rub shoulders with the hundreds of local business owners in attendance.  

There is still much work to be done.   

Throughout much of its history, the U.S. has viewed Africa through the lens of geopolitical competition. The latest frame of reference is China, courting the continent with investment, loans, massive construction projects, and hosting a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation every three years. This view is myopic and ignores Africa’s power and potential as a global force in its own right.   

The continent that gave rise to mobile money and digital payments has charted its unique growth path. Africa’s $115 billion digital economy is improving millions of lives and transforming societies—and the U.S. government has taken notice: Last December, Secretary of State Antony Blinken helped announce the latest winner of the U.S. Chamber’s Africa Digital Innovation Competition, recognizing an African startup helping ensure rural hospitals have the lifesaving supplies they need.  

Africa has room for many more entrepreneurs and investors—American and homegrown. We hope you will be one of them.   

It is high time that America answers the call of so many African governments to engage with them as partners, not patrons. And to bring investment and trade, not aid.   

To learn more about the Greater Houston Partnership’s International Development Committee, click here. To learn more about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce U.S.-Africa Business Center, click here.   

Scott Eisner is president of the U.S.-Africa Business Center, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bob Harvey is CEO and president of Greater Houston Partnership    


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