At 18, Witney Schneidman took a year off after high school to travel. He found himself at youth hostel in Jerusalem, chatting with teenagers who had grown up in Kenya. The exchange was enough to compel him to take a 2,300-mile detour to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, then hitchhike to Uganda.

That was 1971, the year military-dictator-turned-president Idi Amin Dada took over in Uganda.

“I heard him come on the radio and announce he had taken over the country,” Schneidman said. “I thought, ‘This doesn’t happen in Radnor, Pennsylvania, where I come from.’ But I didn’t feel threatened. Everyone seemed to really not like the guy he deposed [Milton Obote], and seemed to really like him at the time.”

A week later, Schneidman started college and began studying development in African nations, connecting it with what he had witnessed. It was then that he vowed to spend his career shaping U.S. relations with Africa, with an eye on how business, government and civil society develop in tandem.

Now 60, Schneidman — an expert on African policy, and an adviser for African affairs in the Clinton administration and for the 2008 Obama campaign — is joining Covington & Burling, the District’s largest law firm. He is to lead the firm’s push to expand in Africa, a market they see as ripe for investment by U.S. and foreign companies.

Covington leaders said the idea is to serve the demands of existing corporate clients who are increasingly interested in exploring business opportunities in the 49 countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

The firm has recently advised national and international corporations in several matters on the continent. They include Liberian gold mining company AmLib Holdings on raising $35 million in private capital, as well as Microsoft, Apple and others in the Business Software Alliance in anti-piracy litigation.

“We’re used to thinking of Africa as a continent of crisis and despair as opposed to a continent of innovation, but it’s not just Covington that’s waking up to that,” said Schneidman, who is not a lawyer. “We have many clients in the U.S., Europe, India, Korea and China, they look at the European market and see there is not much is going on there. The U.S. market is very challenging to get into. What they’re really interested in is Latin America and Africa.”

‘Not on everyone’s radar yet’

Covington last year tapped another former State Department official, Arturo Valenzuela, to lead a similar push into Latin America. Covington does not have immediate plans to open offices on either continent. Schneidman is leading the Africa initiative from the firm’s home base in Washington.

A handful of top U.S. law firms have established Africa practices — among them DLA Piper, Patton Boggs, Hunton & Williams and Baker & McKenzie — but it is still considered a relatively nascent area for many major firms.

“It’s not on everyone’s radar yet,” said Jeffrey Lowe, managing partner of the Washington office of legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. “But I think they’re right, there’s tremendous potential.”

Schneidman founded and ran a small Africa-focused business consulting practice for 11 years, Schneidman & Associates International, which he is shutting down to join Covington. One of his clients was Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television and chairman of Bethesda-based RLJ Cos., who in 2006 traveled to Liberia and heard a speech by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf during which she called on American businesses to help reconstruct the war-ravaged country.

Johnson sought Schneidman’s advice on how to create a fund to make loans to Liberian entrepreneurs looking to create jobs. With $3 million from Johnson himself, Schneidman turned to the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp., the federal agency that makes capital available to U.S. companies in high-risk environments. OPIC agreed to put up $20 million to form the Liberia Enterprise Development Finance Corp., which makes loans in amounts of $25,000 to $1 million.

Schneidman later advised Johnson in the construction of RLJ Kendeja Resort & Villas in Liberia, the first hotel built to international standards there in a quarter century. Schneidman helped negotiate RLJ’s 50-year lease with the government, and connected Johnson with a contractor in South Carolina to manage the construction. The hotel opened in 2009.

Shaping market regulations

Schneidman said his priority now is to help Covington shape outcomes that benefit the firm’s clients and the countries they’re looking to do business in.

He previously worked with Covington lawyers on a World Health Organization initiative aimed at reducing the harmful effects of alcohol around the world. The project brought together 30 international beverage manufacturers, including Heineken and Bacardi, with government officials to develop laws regulating the sale and consumption of alcohol in regions where such laws were minimal or nonexistent.

Schneidman served as a go-between, meeting with health ministries and representatives from beverage companies. As a result, he said, Uganda and Kenya adopted minimum age drinking laws, and beverage makers began to recognize the need to adapt to local tastes — such as brewing beer from sorghum, a type of grass raised for grain that is abundant in Africa — and to see the benefits of helping shape market regulations.

Schneidman and John Veroneau, co-chairman of Covington’s international practice, said that is the type of role they’d like to continue playing in Africa.

“More than anything, companies want certainty,” Veroneau said. “They can build a business model around any existing regulatory framework. It’s when they don’t know what that framework is that makes it tough.”