African ministers and business people joined their American counterparts in Washington, D.C., last week at the U.S.-Africa Business Summit, to discuss greater economic engagement, despite lingering uncertainty over the United States’ position toward global trade.
Conversations at the Corporate Council for Africa-hosted event ranged from broad strategy to country-specific investments, with plenty of time for meetings and deal-making. Throughout those talks, a few key issues emerged.
First on many attendees’ minds was what the U.S.-Africa relationship will look like under President Donald Trump’s leadership. But robust discussions also emerged around the role of business in pandemic response, how to target and achieve social impact and the need for regional integration and infrastructure improvements.
Here’s a look inside several of those conversations, and where they may be headed.
The U.S.-Africa relationship
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross addressed the summit, offering reassurances and some specifics about the administration’s view toward existing and future trade pacts with the continent.
“We cannot ignore such a large, dynamic and vital part of the world,” he told attendees of the administration’s interest in Africa. The administration would like to see Africa continue to grow and become more self-reliant, he said.
“Our trade relationship is vital to the security and stability of both the U.S. and Africa. But our relationship with Africa has to continue its transition from being ‘aid-based’ to ‘trade-based,’” Ross said.
The U.S. will honor the African Growth and Opportunity Act, he said, adding that it will hold countries to account for the compliance restrictions. But he argued that two-way trade agreements and bilateral agreements are preferable to large, multilateral agreements.
Also on trade, he encouraged African countries to implement the new World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, which he described as an “excellent opportunity” that “streamlines customs operations, enhances transparency, removes red tape and reduces costs to exporters and importers.”
He called for continued engagement with American companies, especially in importing goods that African consumers want. He also encouraged governments to rethink procurement processes to make decisions based on quality and long-term value, rather than bottom-line cost, a shift that would favor more U.S. companies.
Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank, echoed Ross’s remarks, arguing that Africa must be approached with an investment mindset rather than a development mindset.
“I agree completely with Secretary Wilbur Ross about the importance of the shift from aid to trade, to which I would add the extra insight that it should be from aid to investment,” he said.
Adesina added that the bank will be launching an Africa Investment Forum aimed at attracting global and regional institutional investors to the continent later this year.
Pandemic response and partnership
Businesses across a number of industries are actively engaged in prevention and planning for potential pandemics, several business representatives said at the event. They are looking for ways to reduce risks to the business environment and the community.
Private sector and government leaders said partnership will be key to these efforts. “I don’t think any of the companies here, or NGOs in the room, can respond to [a] global health crisis in isolation,” said Jirair Ratevosian, the director of government affairs for pharmaceutical company Gilead.
Companies see a clear business case to get involved in pandemic prevention and response.
“Infectious disease rarely stops at the fence line,” said Deena Buford, global medical director of the Medicine and Occupational Health Department for Exxon Mobil Corp. “We know it can hinder or stop operations, and we also live in communities where we have operations and it can ripple through the entire business environment.”
Exxon, she said, has more than 80 clinics and 70,000 employees that can be deployed in partnership with others when the next emergency strikes.
Gilead is working directly with health ministries to help improve access to medicines, strengthen health systems, improve research and public awareness, licensing some medications and finding local or regional suppliers, Ratevosian said.
For its part, the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has helped develop a “joint external evaluation tool” that helps assess a country’s readiness to respond to a crisis.
The tool creates a scorecard that can help identify where a country needs to improve lab capacity or emergency operations or needs additional technical expertise, said Jordan Tappero, the director of the division of global health protection at the Center for Global Health at the CDC.
With this knowledge of where the strengths and weaknesses are, the private sector can help provide logistics skills, innovation and technology, he said. The assessments can help countries seek partners and make smart choices about pandemic investment and who to partner with.
He urged more countries to create emergency operations and incident managed systems with a single point of contact that can help coordinate private sector efforts.
Marie Lichtenberg, the director of international partnership at Planet Aid, cautioned that while partnerships can be critical to achieving scale and success, they require work to be effective. She suggested three critical factors to identify a match: It should be a good fit for all involved, sustainable after the initial investment, and scaleable.
Integration within Africa has been the buzzword at several recent gatherings. Proponents argue better connectivity would not only improve trade between countries on the continent but also make Africa a more attractive destination for American companies and capital.
To be effective, however, many attendees argued that integration must be complemented with improved infrastructure, efforts to reduce the amount of time it takes to move goods, and stronger local capacity.
Inter-African trade plans are progressing fairly swiftly, Ghana’s Minister of Trade and Industry Alan John Kwado Kyermaten told the summit. A planning team is now sorting out the final terms of how the negotiations will play out.
“There is no doubt it is a development imperative for Africa. There is no turning back, even if it takes time, it has to happen,” he said. Kyermaten argued that infrastructure upgrades should begin in tandem with efforts at better integration.
Several other efforts are underway that could improve inter-African connectivity. The African Export-Import Bank has been working to improve certifications so that there are set standards for goods, said Benedict Oramah, the president and chief executive officer of the bank. By the end of 2017, the bank will launch a new inter-African trade platform, through which people can see who is producing what, place orders and pay for goods in their local currency and a feature that focuses on logistics.
TradeMark East Africa, a trade focused non-profit, has worked with a number of companies to improve ports, streamline customs processes and improve transit times. The Economic Community of West African States has created a common tariff and worked to reduce red tape, though there is still some corruption and border issues, said Marcel De Souza, the president of ECOWAS.
In addition to tackling some of the trade barriers, De Souza said the region must also work to address peace and security. Without safe passage and safe borders, it is difficult to have free movement of goods and services or attract investment, he said.
“Regional integration is the right path. I think our region is very integrated despite any weaknesses we might have,” De Souza said.