8 August 2014

Africa: Beyond the Rhetoric - Africa Goes to Washington

Photo: Chuck Kennedy/ The White House
President Barack Obama joins African leaders for a group photo during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., Aug. 6, 2014.
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Finally, President Obama extended an invitation to African nations to participate in a Summit. It was rather short but yet it was a summit. He invited 52 of the 54 nations – omitting Sudan and Zimbabwe which he declares as being wicked.

I have seen no official news reports about the number that actually responded. I heard anywhere from 40 to 50. One thing is certain. This event was historical and has put the African continent on everyone's mind. Seeing thousands of people filling up many of DC's hotels and motorcades racing everywhere made the residents of the nation's capital realize that something big was going on and it was a beautiful Black thing.

Africa has made it clear to the world: We have come to do business. As Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said "Africa wants to move away from a relationship of aid donor and aid recipient to one of investment and trade". Yes, it is not about feed the hungry anymore. The continent that has been blessed with the most natural resources in the world is ready to begin cashing in.

One thing that must be addressed immediately is the lack of power. You can't have a thriving nation without electricity. It is the lifeblood of business. President Obama has promised $7 billion in power plant investment. He was so motivated this week that he claims he is going to double down on that amount. General Electric has stated that it will invest 2 billion dollars also to the expansion of electricity. This isn't an instant event. Electricity cannot be stored. It is generated and then used or wasted.

Thus, ahead of building these plants must be expansion of businesses, manufacturing plants, schools, hospitals, homes, shopping centers, etc. Besides having sources to apply this new electrical wave there will also be millions of new jobs which require training and education. The good news is it appears that everyone understands that now.
President Obama stated he was investing in the next generation. He gets it. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt stated, "We gave it to the Europeans first and to the Chinese later, but today its wide open for us." Yes, I think they are all starting to get it.

I was impressed with the efforts of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (of which I am a Board Member) to support this summit. Its Africa Business Initiative (ABI) hosted business related events before, during and after the Summit. The Corporate Council on Africa played an active role as well as the Bloomberg Foundation.

Mel Foote, CEO of the Constituency for Africa, worked himself like a Trojan in getting the word out and pumping up people of the African Diaspora. Corporate giants like Citigroup, Ford Motor Co., Lockheed Martin and Chevron participated, to name a few. It was Africa's finest "hour" and we should thank God for this. History has not been good for the African Diaspora, particularly Africa itself. To paraphrase the late Sam Cooke, a change has come.

We had breakfast with members of the Benin Chamber of Commerce and Industry to reflect on what just happened. They stated that the most important event was the discussion on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The President and other principles have resolved to improve it. That is long overdue. Right now, 92% of the activity under AGOA is oil imports mostly from Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria.

Also, Germany plays a game by manufacturing BMW's in South Africa and shipping them to the U.S. under the duty free advantage of AGOA. AGOA must be used as it was intended via opening up other industries and having participation from all of the AGOA certified African nations. The Benin chamber is very excited and I am sure all of the other chambers are equally excited.

Now, if all of this investment is poised to happen what role will our Export/Import Bank play? It must have a role in financing the upcoming activity. Right now only 1.5% of its business is done in Africa. Currently, of the 42 African nations certified for EX/IM activity only 7 of them are doing any activity – Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, Angola, Cameroon and Nigeria. I seriously doubt if any Black owned American businesses are getting loans through the EX/IM. The authorization for the EX/IM is up for renewal. If it is not renewed by September 30, 2014 it will cease activity. Now is the time for us to get some real and serious commitments from the managers of EX/IM in terms of serious lending to Black owned firms operating in all the nations of Africa and the entire African Diaspora.

I think it is going to happen. Africa is going to really be on the rise. There is so much promise in what happened this week. I am surprised and happy and haven't felt this good since the Million Man March.

Mr. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: halford@nationalbcc.org

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