President Obama, administration officials and business executives Tuesday reiterated their call for the United States to move away from a paradigm of aiding Africa and toward one of partnering with the continent's countries. If the United States does not, officials at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum warned, America will be left behind.
"It strikes me that we have only barely scratched the surface" of partnering with Africa, former president Bill Clinton said while moderating a panel. "And we've missed the boat. We have to understand that this is a massive opportunity for American businesses."
President Obama announced that U.S. firms will invest more than $14 billion in the continent in sectors including banking, construction and information technology, and private companies and government institutions are adding an additional $12 billion to Power Africa, the administration's electrification project for the continent.
"The United States is determined to be a partner in Africa’s success, a good partner, an equal partner and a partner for the long term," Obama said.
Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and business executives including General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt and IBM CEO Virginia Rometty told attendees at the largest summit of African leaders ever put on by a U.S. president that African countries must conform to business norms, make their countries a welcoming place for workers and fight against the scourge of corruption that has gripped parts of the continent.
"Capital is one thing. Development programs and projects are one thing. But rule of law, regulatory reform, good governance, those things matter even more, because people should be able to start a business and ship their goods without having to pay a bribe or hire somebody's cousin," Obama said.
As Africa moves away from conflict with the world's youngest population, Kerry said countries have to provide a sense of opportunity for young people and warned of the dangers of terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabbab, who are working to recruit young people.
"Opportunity is something that Boko Haram and al-Shabab and many other groups will never, ever provide," he said.
But the primary thrust of the day was one of partnership and cooperation. Obama emphasized that the United States does not want to just invest in Africa's business sector and its vast natural resources, but rather its people.
"We recognize Africa for its greatest resource, which is its people and its talent and their potential. We don’t simply want to extract minerals from the ground for our growth," Obama said, an apparent dig at China, Africa's largest trading partner. "We want to build genuine partnerships that create jobs and opportunity for all our peoples and that unleash the next era of African growth. That’s the kind of partnership America offers."
Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose company's philanthropic arm sponsored the conference, said business and government leaders have no choice but to pay attention to and work with Africa.
"In America there is a disconnect between the reality of the African market and the perception of the African market," Bloomberg said. "Companies that ignore Africa do so at their own peril."
MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga said Africa reminds him of a once-emerging market where brisk business now occurs.
"I believe Africa is at the stage Asia was 15 years ago,” he said. And Bloomberg cautioned against calling Africa emerging.
"The fact is Africa is no longer emerging. It is here now," he said.
Doug McMillon, president and CEO of Wal-Mart, said the company is taking some of the lessons it learned from expanding into Latin America and applying them to Africa. One example, he said, was that the company found a South African winery, Seven Sisters, and put it in its American stores. It's now a best-seller.
"I'm excited about Africa," he said.