Top Five Take-Aways from the President’s Trip to Africa

July 8, 2013 By John Glenn

Africa is open for business.  With 7 out of the 10 fastest growing economies in Africa in 2010, observers are starting to take note that many countries have become more democratic and experienced over 5% growth since 1995, even during the global financial crisis. Since 2000, trade between the United States and Africa has more than tripled.  It’s striking to see that President Obama’s trip was built not just around the legacy of U.S. humanitarian assistance, but around events with American CEOs and entrepreneurs to highlight new economic opportunities in Africa that help not just the continent but businesses at home.

Power as the missing link.  Africa is still facing a real crisis with access to reliable energy, which many see as holding it back from its real potential.  More than two-thirds of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is without electricity and more than 85 percent living in rural areas lack access to power. In South Africa, President Obama said, “Access to electricity is fundamental to opportunity in this age.  It’s the light that children study by; the energy that allows an idea to be transformed into a real business.  It’s the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs.  And it’s the connection that’s needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy.”

It’s not charity, it’s trade and investment.  The key to success, according to the Administration, will not be massive new U.S. spending but deploying agencies like OPIC that generate revenue for the U.S. government through public-private partnerships.  President Obama announced commitments of $9 billion from the private sector, Including General Electric providing new affordable energy by utilizing expertise and capital from Tanzania and Ghana, and Symbion Power supporting 1,500 megawatts in new and innovative energy projects.  U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said in his speech to USGLC last week, “trade and investment are force multipliers” to improving Africa’s economic growth, as well as creating “jobs and exports and growth back here in the United States.”

Africa is bipartisan.  President Obama’s trip coincided with a visit to Tanzania by President George W. Bush, who has continued his commitment to Africa by visiting several times since his presidency and joined Obama for a ceremony commemorating the 11 people killed by the Al Qaeda bombing of the American Embassy in 1998.  President Obama repeatedly praised President Bush for his commitment to fighting AIDS in Africa, saying, “Because of the commitment of the Bush administration and the American people, millions of people’s lives have been saved.”  Michele Obama and Laura Bush also joined each other at the African First Ladies’ Summit focusing on women’s health, education, and economic empowerment issues.

Don’t forget Congress.  It’s not just the Administration that sees an opportunity in Africa.  House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) introduced new legislation last week that calls for a comprehensive policy to encourage access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa.  As sponsors of the Electrify Africa Act of 2013, both argued that the legislation would help to eliminate the access to reliable energy as “one of the biggest impediments to economic growth on the continent.”  We’ll see if the Senate also takes up the challenge.