President and Michelle Obama will leave Washington on Wednesday for a week-long trip to three African nations, focusing on economic development, democracy building and private sector investment.

The Obamas say goodbye at the Accra, Ghana, airport after a one-day visit to the country in July 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) The Obamas say goodbye at the Accra, Ghana, airport after a one-day visit to the country in July 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Among the highlights for the president will be bilateral meetings with the leaders of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, visits to Senegal's supreme court and a power plant in Tanzania, tours of a slave museum in Gorree Island and the site of the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for two decades on Robben Island. Obama also will tour a community center with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town.

The centerpiece of the trip will be the president's speech at the University of Cape Town, where he will deliver a message that the United States intends to significantly boost its presence on the continent, White House officials said.

"The questions we get are, 'Why has the president not been to Africa more?'" said deputy national security director Ben Rhodes. "That tracks with our belief that there is extraordinary potential on the continent. If we look back in 20 years, 30 years from now, we may see this as a potentially pivotal moment in which Africa took off."

Michelle Obama, too, will have a full schedule. She will speak to girls at a Senegal middle school and with students at a South African high school, and she will participate in a first ladies summit hosted by the George W. Bush Institute. Former first lady Laura Bush also will participate, along with first ladies of African nations, officials said.

The trip marks Obama's first extended visit to the sub-Saharan region since he took office in 2009. His only other visit was a one-day stop in Ghana that year. White House aides emphasized that the administration sees the continent as a fast-emerging region where other nations -- such as including China, Brazil and Turkey -- have vastly expanded their investments. Six of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Obama will bring along several of his top economic aides, including U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, and also a group of business leaders to help promote trade and investment.

The White House rejected the notion, advanced by African policy experts in Washington and in Africa, that the administration's economic and diplomatic initiatives have been overshadowed by the U.S. military's increased focus on counterterrorism operations, including new drone bases, on the continent.

"It's a holistic approach to strengthen democratic institutions, including economic growth and security and development," said Grant Harris, director of African Affairs for the National Security Council.

Aides said Obama would like to visit with Mandela's family but that he will respect the wishes of the 94-year-old's relatives to determine if a visit is appropriate while Mandela continues to recover from poor health.