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2013-06-18 08.28.49

This morning, I rolled out of bed to arrive only a few minutes late to the 8 AM Africa Policy Breakfast Series panel convened by Congresswoman Karen Bass (D – CA) on “U.S. Competitiveness in Africa – Leveling the Playing Field.”  I heard Bass say that she planned to start hosting these sorts of events at an earlier event I covered, so it was good to be in attendance and see the session in action.  I continued the morning by strolling over to the Senate offices to attend a Congressional hearing on Zimbabwe and will cover that session in a 2 part post Wednesday and Thursday.

The event convened several prominent financial figures (Elizabeth Littlefield, Overseas Private Investment Corporation; Leocadia Zak, U.S. Trade and Development Agency; Mike Masserman, U.S. Department of Commerce; Benjamin Todd, U.S. Export-Import Bank) from various federal institutions who each gave very brief opening remarks summarizing the nature of their organizations work in Africa.  It was obvious that their intended audience were senior figures in small and medium enterprises who were interested in Africa but know little of the continent.  As Ms. Zak stated, ‘many people are focusing on Africa who haven’t in the past.’  Unfortunately, I don’t know how many of those types were in the audience.  I can say that the broad institutional overviews were useful for me, as my knowledge of US government financial institutions is quite limited.

The African diplomatic community definitely saw the event as being of great importance, as they almost certainly outnumbered the members of Congress in attendance.  The Ambassadors of Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Malawi, and Guinea were in attendance (I was surprised by the relatively small number of Anglophones in that group).

All four of the panelists spoke about US government work to support clean or solar energy in Africa and several of them mentioned projects in South Africa.  This would probably make Todd Moss happy.  The other significant thematic focal point was agribusiness.  Amazingly, AGOA was not particularly referenced, although the Ambassador of Mauritius asked that the US Government move on extending its provisions (due to expire in 2015) as soon as possible.

While the panelists expressed their enthusiasm for investment opportunities in Africa, they were surprisingly candid about the lack of resources available for them to conduct their own work.  Littlefield was particularly blunt in referring to OPIC’s lack of resources (which she can get away with as its President and CEO). She asked rhetorically, “we are 220 people serving all US businesses, how does that work?”  She went on to emphasize the limited financial instruments at OPIC’s disposal, stating, ‘we haven’t got the grants, we haven’t got the resources.”  To sum it all up, she painted a bleak picture that appears to reinforce the analysts who argue that the US has ‘lost ground’ to China in Africa that it cannot make up – ‘we are deeply underinvested in the resources and instruments to help our companies compete abroad.’

Todd added that the Ex-Im Bank is ‘also working within limited resources’ and seemed to indicate that he was only one of two staff there working on African issues.  He also touched on the engagement of the African diaspora in a way that really resonated with me. He opined that ‘the perceived risks in Africa are greater than they are’ and that the African diaspora in the US can play a major role in correcting Africa’s image problem in the US.  The Nigerian Ambassador picked this line up during the Q&A (“negative branding on Africa is impeding trade”).  If I understand correctly, he said that as a result of Boko Haram, Nigeria as a whole had been branded unfavorably, but the problem was really only with three of thirty-six states.  I’m sure that some would find room to take issue with that statement.  Littlefield rushed to the defense of Africa on this issue, saying that the US had its own branding problems in Africa, and spoke of her personal experience in a rural African village where everyone assumed that all Americans were gun owners.

While nothing particularly fascinating was uttered, it was a good event with many networking opportunities for individuals more adept at that trade than I.  The room was very ornate (almost made me feel like a European colonialist), but rectangular and the audience was standing room only.  I do hope that US businesses will gain a greater foothold in Africa, I see nothing inherently bad in that trajectory.  The Nigerian Ambassador spoke of the riches gained by European and South African telecommunications companies operating in his country.  I’m always attending events where I hear US development professionals lecture of the benefits of cell phones.  Why aren’t our companies so bullish?