Washington — Senior U.S. and African government officials, private sector business executives, African civil society representatives and women entrepreneurs from across sub-Saharan Africa have concluded the 11th African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) forum in Washington, ending meetings that covered a wide range of issues intended to help reach their common goal of enhancing U.S.-Africa trade to promote shared economic growth.
"We have now come to the end of two very productive days spent exchanging ideas about how to further that common goal in light of Africa's new economic reality -- in particular, recognizing the continent's rapid economic growth, improved policies to promote trade and investment, and the great opportunities for mutually beneficial economic engagement between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa," Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis said in his closing remarks to the forum June 15.
"While these impressive developments represent a significant step forward for Africa, there are still many challenges to overcome in facilitating trade between our nations," he added in prepared remarks.
Marantis said the 2012 AGOA forum focused on how to overcome barriers to both U.S. trade with sub-Saharan Africa and intraregional trade within Africa.
"This week's dialogue explored the notion that a key component to facilitating trade, and to improving Africa's trade competitiveness in the global economy, is developing and improving infrastructure, whether this means building sustainable supply chain infrastructure or improving access to the market for women," he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed the importance of infrastructure development during her remarks at the forum's opening June 14. She said that for Africa to realize its full potential, it will need to focus on developing its physical infrastructure, such as roads, ports and modern electrical grids.
Financing power projects in Africa will play a particularly significant role in this effort, as power is key to enabling the construction of new and better infrastructure across the continent.
"What we see in country after country is that the principal constraint to economic growth is access to reliable energy," said Patrick Fine, vice president of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), during a panel discussion on power.
With fewer than 25 percent of households in Africa having access to electricity, Fine said, there is "tremendous demand" for energy across the continent. He said that meeting that need has the potential to "ignite economic growth by creating all sorts of opportunities for small businesses, for cooperatives, for agriculture -- across the sectors."
Fine said the MCC is helping to finance several large-scale energy programs across Africa as part of its "long-term model for ensuring that the investments that we're making can be sustained."
The U.S. State Department also has highlighted the importance of power to African economic growth by sponsoring an energy trade mission to Mozambique, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana earlier in 2012. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson led the delegation, which also stopped briefly in Kenya and included other government officials as well as business leaders looking to invest in Africa.
Carson has called Africa the next frontier for investment, and State Department officials say the trade mission he led shows the United States is ready to do business in Africa in a much bigger way.
In addition to energy infrastructure, panel discussions during the forum covered the impact of infrastructure on the capacity to trade, renewable biomass energy for rural development and transportation infrastructure.
Equally critical to investing in physical infrastructure across the continent will be improvements in regulatory infrastructure that make it easier to do things like register new businesses or get a construction permit.
Panel discussions, led by U.S. government officials and their African counterparts, covered creating a regulatory environment to attract renewable energy investment and improving regulatory measures to encourage investment in broadband infrastructure.
Clinton said that in addition to physical and regulatory infrastructure improvements, Africa must focus on investing in its human infrastructure.
"At a time when 60 percent of the people of sub-Saharan Africa are under 25 and millions of them are out of work, there has to be a concentrated effort by all of us to help equip these young people, to support them, because our economies and our societies need their talents, their energy and their ideas," the secretary said.
"The same is true for women," she added, noting that supporting women entrepreneurs can lead to a "multiplier effect" for growing economies.
Improving health infrastructure to support citizens and enhancing infrastructure to promote women's economic success were discussed in panels during the forum.
Marantis said that since AGOA's start in 2000, two-way trade between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa has seen an "exponential" 300 percent increase, reaching a total of more than $716 billion. He said U.S. trade with the region hit $95 billion in 2011 alone.
"I hope that next year, by building off of this week's discussions and taking actions to develop and improve the infrastructure to facilitate trade, we do not just maintain, but exceed this impressive growth rate," he said.
Supporting this goal, Marantis said, will be President Obama's new presidential policy directive for sub-Saharan Africa, which he said "represents a major milestone" in the U.S.-sub-Saharan Africa trade relationship. He said as the directive is implemented, U.S. and African leaders can expect even more enhanced and focused engagement on trade and investment between the regions.
He said that while the 2012 AGOA forum saw many accomplishments, much work remains before the 2013 forum in Ethiopia.
"It is my hope that our nations will continue to advance our shared commitment and common goal to using trade as an engine for economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic, and to explore ways that we can continue to work together to maximize the potential of our countries, our businesses and our people," he said.
The 2012 forum brought together more than 600 participants, including top U.S. and African government officials, private sector leaders, African civil society representatives and African women entrepreneurs. It was preceded by a two-day civil society program June 12-13 in Washington and complemented by the African Women's Entrepreneurship Program. The Corporate Council on Africa hosted its own follow-up infrastructure conference June 18-20 in Washington, and a U.S.-Africa Business Conference convenes in Cincinnati June 21-22.
AGOA was designed to promote U.S. trade and investment ties with sub-Saharan Africa. It provides trade preferences to 40 participating African countries through the removal of nearly all tariffs on their exports. It has broken down many trade and customs barriers in an effort to stimulate economic growth, encourage economic integration and help bring sub-Saharan Africa into the global economy and has significantly stimulated increased trade between the United States and Africa.