Ms. Florie Liser resumed work in Washington DC. January 23 as the first female and third President/CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa (CCA). Liser had earlier shared her vision for Africa as the new pilot in the cockpit with members of the CCA in what she called a new conversation about how America does business with Africa. In this interview with Nduka Nwosu, the former US Trade Representative to 49 African countries restates her already stated convictions on why it is exciting and challenging to work in Africa, her lifelong interest.
Can we get to know you more as well as your job profile at the Office of USTR?
Absolutely. Good morning and thank you for the congratulations and for the opportunity to interview with THISDAY. For those who do not know me, my name is Florie Liser and I have spent the majority of my career working to grow and improve the US-Africa trade and investment relationship. I was unanimously appointed President and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa, CCA, by our Board of Directors and I officially began my new role on January 23. CCA is the leading US business association focused solely on connecting business interests in Africa. I joined CCA from the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR), where I served as the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa since 2003. At USTR, I spearheaded trade and investment policy towards 49 sub-Saharan African nations and oversaw implementation of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).
Before I became the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa, I worked as the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Industry, Market Access, and Telecommunications from 2000-2003; served as the Senior Trade Policy Advisor in the Office of International Transportation and Trade at the Department of Transportation from 1987-2000; worked as a Director in USTR's Office of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) Affairs, and served as an Associate Fellow at the Overseas Development Council (ODC) from 1975-1980.
What is the significance of this appointment about this time especially in corporate America and the global stage where there is an on-going advocacy to see more women occupy vital positions such as the CCA portfolio provides?
I think we are living in an interesting time in history. There are important conversations taking place all over the world right now about globalisation and how we do business internationally. It is a period of change and a time of uncertainty as the new U.S. Administration begins to shape a range of policies that will, no doubt, impact the U.S.-Africa relationship broadly, and U.S.-Africa business engagement specifically. There is also a lot of change happening on the continent as well. There are new presidents in Ghana and the Gambia, and we'll be watching elections in Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda, and Angola very closely.
There are many challenges and opportunities that U.S. policy should address because we cannot afford to ignore the second fastest growing market in the world. Now, more than ever, is the time for a call to action by the U.S. and African private sector to help shape the Trump Administration's Africa agenda and policies. CCA, and I as its president, have a vital role to play.
It will be more appropriate to follow this up by asking what are the aims and objectives of the Corporate Council on Africa?
CCA hosted its Annual Membership Meeting earlier this month, and I told our members that my goal for the organization is for CCA to be the most valuable resource for companies and organisations doing business in Africa. It's a simple, but ambitious goal I have set outfor me and my staff.
Coming from government where you were the US trade representative what synergy will the Council stand to benefit by way of your experience?
There is actually not too much work for me to do in terms of building synergies between CCA and U.S. government agencies. The organization already enjoyed very strong relationships with the U.S. government before I took office, and has a strong reputation for bipartisanship and working with whichever administration is in office. We have hosted former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and have worked with U.S. agencies relevant to our member companies. I plan to continue this strong tradition and build upon CCA's work to date.
Since you had earlier keyed in the issue of your vision, will you like to elaborate on this even if informally?
As I previously mentioned, I want this organization to be the most valuable resource for companies doing business in Africa. To accomplish this goal, I plan to focus on four key things at the moment: reorienting the organization to provide more services beyond our events; expanding our footprint on the continent and our reach outside the Washington, DC metro area; growing our membership; and maintaining our critical role as a convener of business stakeholders in Africa and in the United States. In my first 50 days in office, we launched a series of policy workshops called the U.S.-Africa Business Dialogue. These meetings will convene business leaders to make policy recommendations to the new administration for their specific sectors.
I also just returned from my first trip to the continent as President and CEO of CCA, where I met with CCA members and other businesses in South Africa and Kenya.
When do you intend to visit Nigeria?
Don't worry; I intend to visit Nigeria soon. Finally, we will be hosting our flagship conference, the 11th Biennial U.S.-Africa Business Summit on June 13-16, 2016 in Washington, DC. The summit will convene over 1,000 business and government leaders focused on doing business in Africa.
How many Nigerian businessmen and interests are active participants of the CCA?
We have 26 member companies in Nigeria - indigenous and multinationals including leading businesses like Dangote Group, Microsoft, Zenith Bank, ExxonMobil, Heirs Holdings, Procter and Gamble, Adepetun Caxton-Martins Agbor & Segun (ACAS-LAW), Caterpillar and Afro Tourism.
About 15% of our member companies are African and it's our fastest growing demographic within membership. Nigerian companies make up almost 50% of that number.
We are fortunate to have Mr. Aliko Dangote and Mr. Jim Ovia on our Board of Directors and we also have a satellite office in Abuja. Mr. Ekenem Isichei, our Director for West Africa, heads that office.
Can you espouse on your earlier statement that there are many challenges and opportunities that U.S. policy should address because we cannot afford to ignore the second fastest growing market in the world?
Certainly. When CCA was founded in 1993 with a few, passionate members, Africa was in fact largely ignored as a market and viable business opportunity for Americans. Today, Africa is undergoing the most rapid urbanization rate of any region - 1 billion people with 50% under the age of 20; and despite recent changes in the African market, spending by Africa's consumers and businesses already totals $4 trillion. Africa is also more connected now than ever before as its internet usage has grown at a pace seven times faster than the global average. In addition to having 60% of the world's uncultivated arable land, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) projects that Africa could double its manufacturing output and we have already begun seeing more value-added agricultural and non-oil products entering global markets, including the United States.
What this means for U.S. and African business is that there are incredible opportunities for greater and more diversified trade and investment. We must also acknowledge though, that along with these great opportunities, there remain some troubling problems. There are pockets of high unemployment and poverty, and it is still unnecessarily cumbersome to do business in many countries.
How does the CCA intend to help the Trump Administration in shaping its Africa agenda and policies?
To be frank, there have been a lot of think pieces and talking heads speculating on what the Trump Administration's policies towards Africa will be, but there have been no official announcements yet. I think there is a link between the administration's priorities in Africa (such as peace and security) and the continent's economic development.
CCA is uniquely positioned to "connect the dots" between what is important to the new U.S. Administration and what's important to U.S. and African businesses - including greater trade, investment, and job creation; and lead a dialogue on the U.S. stake in greater U.S.-Africa economic engagement.
Would you like to talk more on the U.S.-Africa Business Dialogue?
As I mentioned earlier, it will be an on-going series of policy workshops that will bring business leaders and stakeholders together to make recommendations for specific industries. Our first workshops focused on energy and power, agribusiness, technology and infrastructure. These recommendations will be shared with the Trump White House, as well as relevant U.S. government agencies working in those sectors and on those issues.
What is the CCA's trade policy, and the expectations under your administration?
CCA does not develop trade policies for governments. We do, however, advocate for policies both in the U.S. and on the continent that facilitate U.S.-Africa trade and investment, many of which have an impact on our members' business and investments. As a convener, we do leverage our connections with regional bodies and governments to ensure the private sector has a voice in policy discussions which are key to building enabling business environments.
How is the CCA helping African countries maximise their energy resources including the ability to supply regular electricity to every household and industry?
CCA primarily works for the private sector, but we recognize that the power deficit on the continent is one of the largest constraints to business. Power and electrification will require an incredible amount of investments over the next few years and I think it will be accomplished through innovative public-private partnerships. In fact, we will be discussing how these partnerships are put together at the CCA Africa Finance Forum on April 20, which is taking place on the sidelines of the World Bank Spring Meeting. CCA has a number of member companies, such as Symbion Power, that are active partners in Power Africa projects. Power Africa, an initiative of the U.S. government, is bringing together technical and legal experts, the private sector, and governments from around the world to work in partnership to increase the production of electricity in Africa and the number of Africans with access to electricity. Beyond Power Africa, several CCA members are engaged in various power generation initiatives across the continent.
One of your key areas of emphasis is infrastructure development. Would you like once more to get into this conversation?
Similar to energy, infrastructure is also a massive constraint on business growth. In 2011, former President of AfDB announced that it would cost approximately US$90b every year for the next decade to address Africa's infrastructure deficit. Our infrastructure program at CCA is one of our most active and our members are constantly involved in new deals and projects on the continent. In fact, CCA member, Acrow Bridge, won the U.S. ExIm Deal of the Year award last year for their project supplying bridges to Cameroon.
President Trump has said one of his major emphases would be security, fighting terrorism globally. How is the CCA leveraging into this to benefit members fighting one form of insurgency or the other in the continent?
As I stated, I think there is a link between the administration's priorities in Africa and the continent's economic development. A lot of insurgency, especially on the continent, can be linked to poverty and unemployment and the private sector remains the best driver of economic growth and development.
Security is also a sector focus at CCA because it affects every facet of business. We are not only interested in supporting CCA member companies that provide security-related equipment, services and training, we are also interested in how security affects business outcomes in other key sectors such as tourism and infrastructure.
How is the CCA working to increase and enhance the value of agricultural products coming from Nigeria and other African countries especially as primary export items?
Once again, it is important to note that CCA does not itself invest in agricultural production, but rather is working closely with member companies to support investments in African agriculture and agribusiness. CCA has a number of member companies in the agribusiness sector working to modernize African agriculture and boost the sector's profile so governments recognize that agriculture is in fact, big business. Developing the agricultural value chain and processing and producing more than just raw materials would also enable Nigeria and other African nations to take advantage of duty free access to the U.S. market for those products under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).
Would you like to elaborate on your finance programme for African countries and how it has fared till date?
We do not have a finance program for African countries, like the World Bank or IMF; rather, we have a strong finance working group program comprised of CCA member company banks, private equity, investors and business leaders focused on issues relating to raising capital and facilitating business transactions in Africa.