Guest Blog: Reset Africa; Obama Tours the Continent

Categories: BizVoice, Business News, Government


The following is a guest blog by Asoka Ranaweera, managing partner of Grid2Grid LLC, a company based in Washington, D.C. that advises investors on structuring investments and developing projects in West, East and Central Africa. Ranaweera penned this back in July, and was a source in our upcoming BizVoice story, "Africa Under Construction," set for release in the new edition next week.

I am sitting in a hotel in Dar es Salaam Tanzania. The town is buzzing with anticipation and excitement. Any day now, President Obama will touch down and thousands of Tanzanians will be out to greet him. Everywhere you go and almost everyone you speak to will have something positive to say about our President and Michelle Obama.

By some remarkable coincidence, President George W. Bush and Laura Bush are also in town. President Bush is on a regional tour, and is fondly remembered by many Africans for providing billions of dollars in funding for combating AIDS and for starting the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which has had a significant impact in countries like Tanzania.

As I ponder the countless hours of traffic jams, security roadblocks and searches to come, my attention wanders toward the hotel bar. I see a large group of Chinese businessmen and women enjoying a drink and chatting animatedly. Dar es Salaam is abuzz not just with Obama’s visit, but also by the sounds of an economy growing at an average of 7% per annum.

Wherever you might look in Tanzania, you will find Africans, Chinese, Indians, Malaysians and Arabs vying for a slice of Tanzania’s economic growth and business. Meanwhile, as I left Washington, D.C. for Dar es Salaam, President Obama was getting some flak for embarking on a weeklong tour of Africa at the expense of U.S. taxpayers.

Rather than thinking about Africa as a place where development is now taking place rapidly, many in the American press still view it from a 1980s perspective. Meanwhile, Brazil, Russia, India, China, Turkey and many other countries are increasingly seeing Africa as a land of opportunity, a place to trade, invest and to develop bilateral relations with African people.

Africa is where all the economic action is taking place these days with 15 of the 20 fastest growing economies and approximately 300 million people attaining middle-class status in the last 20 years, according to the African Development Bank (AFDB). It’s possible that in the years to come, Africa will overtake Asia to become the fastest growing region of the world.

In 2009, President Obama visited Africa for about 20 hours. His election at the time energized many Africans into believing that his Kenyan heritage would lead to greater cooperation between Americans and Africans. Unfortunately, that never panned out; President Obama and his administration had huge domestic challenges to overcome such as the global financial crisis, which we are all still recovering from.

As we entered the recession, many Americans realized that Africa — a continent long associated with starving children, conflict diamonds and corrupt dictators — was growing and that altogether a new dynamic was shaping it. And we also came to the understanding that countries such as China had come to have a profound impact on the continent and that Africa was now a destination for business, trade and investment. Thus after more than four years of being primarily absent from the scene directly, President Obama is finally back, and this time his advisors say it is with the intention to “reset relations with Africa."

Afrophiles hope that this could be the beginning of a more concerted and directed engagement with the continent, especially in light of the fact that many people both at home and in Africa believe that this belated engagement has its roots more in economic competition than anything else.

Interestingly enough, from my experience America is more welcomed and viewed in higher terms in Africa than in any other part of the world. Africans feel a strong affinity for all things American and have been yearning for our support and partnerships. Africans in this generation are more likely to ask for investment and trade projects to promote bilateral investment than that dreaded term, "aid." And so the dynamic today is so much more different than it was.

As I get ready to leave the hotel for a meeting downtown, I hear a few Tanzanians discussing what President Obama will be doing in the country. It turns out he will be visiting Symbion, a U.S. company that is playing a significant role in the power generation sector. I am relieved to hear we as American business people are doing something constructive with the Tanzanian people.

As I am being driven through the streets of downtown Dar es Salaam, we almost collide with a high speed convoy. And I am told that we just saw Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse on his way to the statehouse. It turns out this is the first official state visit to Africa by a Sri Lankan leader; times have really changed and I hope we hit that Africa relations reset button sooner rather than later.

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