MODERATOR: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion. Today we are very pleased to be joined by Arun Venkataraman, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Global Markets and Director General of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service, Department of Commerce, and Camille Richardson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Middle East and Africa, Department of Commerce for the U.S.-Africa Business Forum.
Assistant Secretary Venkataraman and Deputy Assistant Secretary Richardson will discuss the upcoming U.S.-Africa Business Forum’s agenda to advance mutually beneficial partnerships that create jobs and drive inclusive and sustainable growth on both sides of the Atlantic. They are speaking to us from Washington, D.C. We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Assistant Secretary Venkataraman and from Deputy Assistant Secretary Richardson, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the briefing.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Global Markets and Director General of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service Arun Venkataraman for his opening remarks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VENKATARAMAN: Thank you, Johann, and thank you all for joining us today. The U.S. Department of Commerce, in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Corporate Council on Africa, are pleased to be hosting the U.S.-Africa Business Forum as a part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit on December 14th. The U.S.-Africa Business Forum is intended to support the trade and investment components of the administration’s strategy towards U.S. – Sub-Saharan Africa, which focuses on partnering with the public and private sectors to address challenges and drive the future of our commercial relationship.
The private sector plays a critical role in driving the broader relationship between the United States and African countries. It is our role as the U.S. Government to work with African governments to create commercially enabling environments in which two-way trade and investment can flourish. And it is a priority for us here at the Commerce Department as we host the first U.S.-Africa Business Forum in six years.
Situated at the heart of the President’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit on December 14th, the U.S.-Africa Business Forum will convene heads of state and business leaders from key sectors to advance solutions in a number of critical areas of mutual interest. These include the following.
First is the future of our trade and investment partnership. Africa is more critical than ever in shaping international rules and collective action, and African solutions will be needed to address current and future world problems. Africa’s youth population, growing entrepreneur class, reserves of rare earth minerals critical for the green energy transition, and regional integration are all key reasons for this. The U.S.-Africa Business Forum will bring together key players from the United States and African governments and private sectors to build partnerships that will increasingly be a vital source for solutions to shared challenges going forward.
Second is in the area of energy and infrastructure finance. Financing for transportation and other infrastructure will be key to supporting the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area and achieving the goal of a single unified market that ensures Africa’s critical role in global economic activity. To fuel the cars, trains, trucks, and buses that will utilize this infrastructure, and to fuel Africa’s growth story, U.S. businesses and government partnerships will support a fuel mix that supports Africa’s self-sufficiency and industrialization goals, as well as adjust an affordable transition to a more diversified and cleaner energy matrix.
The third area is agribusiness. Food security concerns have long been a challenge for many countries on the continent, and recent supply chain disruptions have further highlighted the need for self-sufficiency in food production in Africa. Working across agricultural and industrial sectors, U.S. entities will be essential partners to ensure that Africa’s growth story involves a growing population that is also fueled for Africa’s future.
The fourth area of focus is in the digital economy. One of the most important lessons of the past two years has been the importance of the digital economy and digital technology to economic growth, to recover as well, and to our connections with each other and how necessary all of this is to support the long-term economic growth of our economies. As the U.S. Government’s digital minister, Secretary Raimondo recognizes that a successful digital economy is an ecosystem that requires a holistic policy approach, underpinned by strong collaboration with the private sector.
The successful startup ecosystems across the African continent similarly reflect the centrality of entrepreneurship to meeting Africa’s objectives. Working together, we will advance our peoples’ needs by supporting open networks built on a cyber-secure foundation that fosters skills and capacity building, entrepreneurship and innovation, and an investment environment that enables the free flow of data while protecting personal information.
And speaking of making the most of digital tools, we are pleased that we can help ensure the most inclusive U.S.-Africa Business Forum possible by livestreaming this event across the U.S. and the African continent.
Camille, let me turn to you.
MS RICHARDSON: Thank you so much, Arun, and good afternoon to everyone on the continent. I’d just like to emphasize that this U.S.-Africa Business Forum, which we’ve nicknamed the USABF, is a high priority for us at the Commerce Department, and it has certainly been a labor of love organizing it and putting it together. I can state that our Secretary Gina Raimondo and our Deputy Secretary Don Graves are very excited about the U.S.-Africa Business Forum and the associated side events. So while the forum is a focal point, we have many, many related side events going on during the week of December 12th. And these events will help focus attention of the public and private sector on specific sectors and groups, such as women and youth, small- and medium-sized enterprises.
And I can just – I’d like to take a moment here to emphasize how the U.S. Department of Commerce really does play a unique role in bringing businesses together. We’re responsible for the nuts-and-bolts work of helping American companies build the partnerships with African governments and African companies that will be central to advancing a number of Africa’s objectives. And you should know that we have 11 commercial posts on the ground that are staffed by our top commercial diplomats – what we call senior commercial officers – and they are there to help us grow and meet booming demand on the continent. And we hope to be able to expand the number of posts that we have on the continent to facilitate more business partnerships in the future.
We also have an African diaspora here in the United States which we were able to leverage and to also help deepen and widen those partnerships that are so critical taking us forward in a new partnership that is deeper and wider and taking us to the next level in the future. So thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Venkataraman and Deputy Assistant Secretary Richardson. We will now begin the question and answer portion of the today’s briefing. We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing, which is the upcoming U.S.-Africa Business Forum’s agenda. The briefing is very full, so please be considerate to other journalists and make your questions as brief as possible in the interest of time.
Our first question today will go to Johnson Kanamugire of Rwanda Post. Johnson asks: “What would you say are existing barriers to trade and investment between Africa and the United States currently, and how has the free trade market, the African Continental Free Trade Area, performed so far vis-à-vis the interest of U.S. investors?”
MS RICHARDSON: Arun, do you want me to take that, or would you like to take it? You’re muted.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VENKATARAMAN: Camille, please.
MS RICHARDSON: Okay, thank you. Well, thank you so much for your question, Johnson, and I’ll do my best to answer. I would say that Africa has really proven to be a very dynamic environment and an attractive place for doing business more and more so in recent years, and more and more U.S. companies are taking notice in no small part due to the market intelligence that we’re providing to our U.S. companies to attract them to the continent.
But I would say that perhaps one of the largest barriers to trade and investment is the lack of physical infrastructure, and it’s one of the Biden administration’s top focuses. So infrastructure is definitely an area where we see opportunities for collaboration between our governments as well as our private sector companies.
We’ve already talked about the 11 commercial posts over there. We also work with a network of 23 partner posts that the State Department has on the ground. So we have U.S. Government resources there to help companies understand the markets, navigate the markets, find trusted partners, in order to do business successfully.
And we really do believe that by focusing on some of the sectors that are highlighted under the President’s Global Infrastructure Initiative – energy, the transition to clean energy that Arun mentioned before; infrastructure, finding finance for infrastructure projects; transportation infrastructure, digital infrastructure, also very important; health care, agribusiness – all of these are very key sectors and we developed the agenda for the U.S.-Africa Business Forum in collaboration with African governments and the African private sector. So USABF will allow us to explore how we can advance together to really move the needle in a transformative way on these sectors of focus.
I hope that answered your question, Johnson.
MODERATOR: Okay, very good. Thank you so much, Camille. So for our next question let’s go to a live question from Pearl Matibe of Power FM 98.7.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Johann. I really appreciate the opportunity, and thank you to our briefers for being available. From what I hear from both of you, I get the sense that this is sort of like the 30,000-foot view of what will be happening on the day, and I appreciate that. So my question is to ask you, can you be more specific? Because I’m not getting a sense of that right now. So to be – to point you in the question that – and the question that I have here is, how does – is this day on the 14th here going to be different to the business forum that was held earlier this year and in past years and indeed in 2014 when President Obama had his Africa Leaders Summit? So could you point out what ways – what are you hoping to achieve specifically from this African Business Leaders Summit? Thanks.
MS RICHARDSON: So thanks for your question, Pearl. As you know, the last U.S.-Africa Business Forum was held in 2016, so this is the first forum that we’ve had in six years. A lot has happened in six years. We’ve had COVID, we’ve had supply chain disruptions happening around the world, crisis after crisis. And so one of the key priorities of the Biden administration is economic recovery and growth that is also economically inclusive.
So we have a variety of businesses that have been invited to the forum of all different sizes. We have heads of state – I think we have 42 heads of state confirmed and I think nearly 300 companies on both sides of the Atlantic that are coming together for this.
I think one of the key differences with this particular forum is that it will also be livestreamed so that if – even if a company is not able to be at the forum they’re able to hear and see what is going on. But I would say that one of the big differences for us, we’ll be announcing a lot of very high-level deal commitments. We want to generate interest and excitement. We’re looking to capture hearts and minds. We want to get people’s hearts and minds involved in and really invested in a new partnership with Africa.
As you noticed, the foreign policy of the United States has changed so that it is more about partnering with Africa. It’s not about just trade and aid. It’s really about building a partnership and having a starting point for those conversations about how do we work together to meet the goals of Africa’s industrialization agenda in 2063, how do we get more small companies and more medium-sized companies doing business together as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement is implemented over time? It’s really about focusing U.S. Government resources to support the private sector, which is really the driver of transformation, of change, of trade, of being very forward-leaning.
So this USABF is all about being – about building a transformative partnership that is economically inclusive.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you very much, Camille, for that answer. I’d like to go to Nebert Rugadya of Uganda Radio Network for the next question. His question is: “Where is the U.S. investment interest in Africa? China has its focus on energy infrastructure and minerals. India is interested mainly in manufacturing and agro industry. So where is the U.S. investment interest in Africa?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VENKATARAMAN: I’ll take that question. So this is actually in some ways a tough question and also maybe a simple question, because the reality is we are so fortunate that in the United States our relationship with Africa is both deep and wide. And the correspondingly multifaceted nature of our commercial relationship means that, perhaps in contrast to others, we have strong interest in supporting Africa’s progress across a number of sectors. The U.S.-Africa Business Forum, as we’ve discussed, highlights a few of them, whether it’s related to food security and agribusiness, infrastructure and energy, the digital economy. These are areas that are certainly areas of interest for the American private sector. But given the strength of U.S. private sector solutions in so many sectors, there literally is no limit to the areas of growth for our commercial collaboration.
So when we look at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum, what we hope to do is really take our shared policy priorities and find out how we can harness the energies not just of governments but of the private sectors, of the drive from our entrepreneurs, to promote trade and investment partnerships that will support job creation and inclusive and sustainable growth on both sides of the Atlantic without regard, without limit to the sectors. Even though we have sectors that we have highlighted in the U.S.-Africa Business Forum, we know that the scope is unlimited and the interest of the American private sector is unlimited.
MODERATOR: Okay, thank you very much for that. Okay, we have a further question submitted by Amira Sayed of The Egyptian Gazette, and the question is: “Do you think that the recent geopolitical changes have had negative impacts on Africa-U.S. economic ties?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VENKATARAMAN: So, actually, I would say not only no, but to the contrary. Look, let’s acknowledge the fact that there are indeed significant geopolitical challenges that we are facing in the current environment and that those challenges have had unique and disproportionate impacts on Africa, whether we’re talking about the pandemic and the impact of the pandemic on supply chains, whether we’re talking about climate change and how that’s posing challenges for economies and people around the region, whether we’re talking about the impact on food and fuel supplies from the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. All of these are significant geopolitical challenges that are hitting Africa particularly hard.
But we have to remember that for each and every one of these challenges, what that does is it presents opportunities for deeper collaboration and providing those solutions. We are proud that with the strongest private sector in the world, with the most innovative solutions, the U.S. private sector has the unique opportunity and responsibility to partner with our African colleagues to create the solutions needed to address each and every one of these challenges.
So rather than thinking about the negative impacts on U.S.-Africa economic ties, we see these geopolitical challenges as the source of great strength to deepen our partnership, and we look forward to taking advantage of that.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you, Arun, for that answer. Next I’d like to go to a live question from Live from Declan Walsh of The New York Times.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you all for doing this chat. I just wanted to focus a little bit on – a little bit more on the detail of what we might expect at the summit itself. In the past, other U.S. administrations have sometimes – have announced major or sometimes signature policy initiatives for Africa such as the Prosper Africa initiative under the Trump administration to encourage trade. Can we expect a major policy initiative to be announced during the summit?
And secondly, if I may, I’ve heard that there may be something called a “deal room” at the summit. Is that right, and if so, what will that involve? Thank you.
MS RICHARDSON: Thanks for your question, Declan. And you can certainly expect a major policy announcement from the President at the end of the summit. That’s all I’m going to say. You’ll have to wait until the day to hear the announcement.
And yes, there is a Prosper deal room, which we are super excited about. It’s another thing that distinguishes this summit from the previous one since Prosper had not yet been created. We’ve worked very, very hard with our interagency partners to have their announcements included along with very significant private sector announcements that will be announced on the hour, throughout the hour of the day. And for those – there are so many of them that we’re not actually able to cover them all on the 14th given the time frame, but there will be an online deal book available that is being vetted right now that will feature a significant number of deals that I think that will generate the interest and excitement that we’re looking to achieve here with the U.S.-Africa Business Forum.
MODERATOR: Okay, thank you very much, participants. I have a question which was submitted in advance by Adeniyi Kunnu of Megalectrics in Nigeria. The question is: “With the current fluctuations in the global economy and the realistic bullish incursion of China into many African economies, what is America’s advantage to help attain mutual Africa-U.S. economic benefits, thus checking China and creating a win for all stakeholders?”
MS RICHARDSON: Arun, do you want to take that one?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VENKATARAMAN: Sure, happy to.
MS RICHARDSON: Okay.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VENKATARAMAN: As you all know, the theme of the U.S.-Africa Business Forum this year really is partnering for a prosperous and resilient future, and central to that theme is the U.S. focus and commitment on investing in a mutually beneficial economic partnership for the 21st century that’s going to deepen U.S. ties with African nations so that we can develop solutions jointly to global challenges.
And it is without question that one unique advantage that the United States brings is our private sector. Our companies and their solutions reflect the innovation, drive, and passion of the American people, and they’ve demonstrated the strength of their commitment to Africa. And because they are the private sector, they are in Africa not because the U.S. Government tells them to do so or allows them to do so, but because they recognize as private holders of capital and technology that Africa’s growth story in the coming decades makes the continent an essential place to do business in order to be globally relevant and competitive. And that is also what will make their partnerships enduring and capable of producing tangible benefits on the ground for the long term.
Now, the U.S. Government plays a critical role in supporting that deep commitment of our private sector and in facilitating their interest in being Africa’s partner of choice. The U.S.-Africa Business Forum will provide an opportunity to really demonstrate that important public-private partnership that underpins our long-term commitment to Africa.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much, Arun. I think we’re making really good progress here, but our time is limited, so I think we have time for perhaps two more quick questions. I’d like to call on a live question from from Mona Davids of LittleAfrica News.
Okay, I know that Mona put her question also into the Q&A, so let me read from it here. “How are you engaging U.S. companies, particularly small- to medium-sized businesses, to expand and open up shop on the continent? What new supportive initiatives is the Biden administration providing and/or facilitating for U.S. businesses to assist them in country? For example, are you working with respective countries’ trade and investment agencies?” And that’s the question.
MS RICHARDSON: So that’s a great question, Mona. I will say that we mentioned that we have 11 commercial posts on the ground and 23 partner posts with the State Department, who are very much committed to expanding our trade and investment ties in Africa. One of the ways that we seek to do that is by working with African governments, where desired, to create commercially enabling environments for U.S. companies – so what is going to actually make a market attractive for a U.S. company to come in and do business.
Typically when a company comes to us and they’re interested in investing, we will give them the market information and then we will also partner with the American Chamber of Commerce, who can help them cross the threshold and enter a market. Once a company is in a market, then we are very much happy from our embassies and consulates to raise the flag and send out the golden eagle-engraved invitations to have businesses understand – local businesses understand what a new company is there for and what they have to offer and how they’re there to contribute to a country’s economy.
So we provide a lot of different informational tools for small- and medium-sized companies so that they’re able to understand what’s available to them. Will their product or service do very well in a market? Does it make sense for them to start exporting? And eventually, does it make sense for them to start investing?
Aside from the 11 commercial posts that we have on the continent, we have a network of 106 offices here in the United States and this network of what we call U.S. Export Assistance Centers, and they work every day with small companies in their states – small- and medium-sized companies in their states – to help them develop business strategies that will take them around the world. And I think that you will see much more activity after the U.S.-Africa Business Forum within our domestic network of companies coming to them saying, “Hey, I want to go do business in Africa. How can the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service help me do that?” And our trade specialists across the United States will help link them with contacts on the ground on the continent so that there’s a pipeline of companies coming from the United States to Africa to do business.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you very much, Camille. All right. If we can keep it very brief and sort of beg the pardon of our participants for one last question, Kemi Osukoya, a live question from Africa Bazaar magazine. Please keep your question brief.
QUESTION: Hi, good morning. Can you hear me?
MS RICHARDSON: Yes, Kemi.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VENKATARAMAN: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. I wanted to follow up on the questions that some of the other participants have asked. I was wondering if you could share with us some of the companies that will be participating in the forum, in the business forum. As you know, sometimes it seems like when we’re doing this event, it seems like we are preaching to the choir often. I recently met a business owner, an American – black American business owner that have traveled to Africa and is very interested in doing business on the continent, but he’s not aware of this event, and it’s too late for her to register at this period. So my question then is – the other part of my question is how, after this event, do you plan to reach out to businesses like that that are very interested in doing business on the continent but are not part of your organization, whether it’s corporate Africa or U.S. Chambers of Commerce?
MS RICHARDSON: Kemi, I love that question. Thank you so much for asking it. So I will say this: The U.S.-Africa Business Forum is just the start of a ramped-up engagement by our department in terms of domestic outreach, leveraging the domestic network that I just shared with you. We actually have a global team called the Global Diversity Export Initiative team that is focused on reaching out to companies and businesses that we typically don’t – that don’t necessarily know about us, that we typically don’t work with. And this has been an effort that has been going on since the beginning of the Biden administration. So we’re reaching out to minority-owned businesses. We’re reaching out to women-owned businesses. We’re reaching out to Native American-owned business, Asian, LGBTQI+, all kinds of businesses that we want to make sure are aware of the opportunities in Africa and at the world – in the world at large.
So you will definitely see more outreach domestically working with our partners, working with various chambers across the United States. It’s what we call our Africa Commercial Engagement Strategy, or our ACES. So you’ll see much more ramped-up engagement. You’ll see high-level visits coming to the continent next year. You’ll see several trade missions coming to the continent next year.
So opportunities like this, media hub opportunities like this help us to get the word out. So thank you very much for that question. And we don’t necessarily have a marketing budget as a service or as a department, but we do the best that we can and we really want to – we really want the livestream of the U.S.-Africa Business Forum to be able to reach those small- and medium-sized companies on both sides of the Atlantic and to get everyone really excited and calling us and asking questions about how they can get involved in doing business with each other.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Camille. So finally, Arun and Camille, do you have any final words for the group?
MS RICHARDSON: Arun?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VENKATARAMAN: I think the only thing that I would say is that we are excited about this moment in history because what we see here is the beginning of the next stage of our partnership with Africa. We’re opening a whole new door, taking advantage of the tremendous trajectory we see ahead in Africa, and the fact that for every challenge that Africa faces, there is a solution in the U.S. private sector and that the U.S.-Africa partnership together will really grow to address the shared challenges that we have.
So not only will we be addressing challenges that we each have in our own economies, but by working together we will particularly address the shared challenges that we have globally and that the private sector will be a critical part of those solutions. And that’s what we will begin showcasing at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum, and as Camille underscored, it is the first step of a much deeper level of engagement going forward.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much. So that concludes today’s call. I want to thank Arun Venkataraman, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Global Markets and Director General of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service, and Camille Richardson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Middle East and Africa in the Department of Commerce, for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFMediaHub@state.gov. And just a reminder that transcript and recording of this call will be available. Thank you very much and that concludes our call.
MS RICHARDSON: Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VENKATARAMAN: Thank you.