Africa has to 'learn how to compete'

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday wrapped up a forum on boosting trade ties between Africa and the world’s largest economy, which for many Africans fell short of concrete commitments to assist their home-grown enterprise.

Changing the focus of African development from aid to trade is at the core of the five-year-old African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which lifts US import duties on eligible goods from 37 countries in line with similar long-standing agreements between Africa and its European markets.

Closing the three-day gathering, Rice announced a new aid programme to help states diversify their economies, including projects to upgrade airline safety.

“Through this initiative, several US agencies will support the efforts of African governments to diversify their economies and capitalise further on the promise of Agoa,” she said.

She did not give an overall figure for the aid but said one project will provide grants totalling nearly $1-million to help West African states upgrade the safety of their airlines and plan a new railway.

Under the Act, extended by US President George Bush to 2015, trade with the continent crested above $35-billion last year, with African exports, mostly of crude oil, to the US nearly triple its imports of machinery, vehicles and oil field equipment.

“With Agoa, we have opened the door, and now it is up to the African governments and businesses to walk in,” Cindy Courville, a senior US presidential adviser on Africa, said in an interview.

“The US market is competitive, so if African companies want to be part of the global economy, they have to learn how to compete.”

Through three Agoa trade hubs around the continent—in Botswana, Ghana and Kenya—individuals and governments can petition to have their products certified for export and find buyers or brokers in the US for their textiles, agricultural goods and artisanal handicrafts.

“This is the most important US-African legislation ever passed,” acknowledged Stephen Hayes, president of the Corporate Council on Africa.

“The problem is that by itself, it cannot work; it needs to be part of a more integrated approach, with its non-oil emphasis extended beyond textiles.”

To African entrepreneurs, accustomed to bureaucracy and red tape, the layers of rules and regulations in the US provide additional frustration, from which they found no relief at the three-day event at a luxury hotel in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

“We were hoping for someone to sit down with us and tell us exactly what we need to do to get our products to market and really take advantage of Agoa,” said Diaga Gackou, a Senegalese producer of tisanes, teas and homeopathic digestive aids.

“We did make some contacts, and people were very nice, but they were not as helpful as we needed them to be.”

Even with the help afforded to African businesses under Agoa, huge hurdles remain, in the form of subsidies offered to farmers in the US as well as in Europe that price African agricultural products out of competition.

Bush has expressed a commitment to joining other industrialised nations in lifting those subsidies, but Courville said a complementary effort on the continent to move away from subsistence farming is equally important.

“Commercial farming needs to become a viable way to feed a country’s own people as well as for export,” she said.

“Countries like Zimbabwe used to feed themselves—and now we are feeding Zimbabwe. We must see more of a commitment to reduce imports when there is fertile land capacity.”

Where there is not fertile land capacity as in Niger, which is in the throes of a food crisis that threatens a quarter of its 12-million people, there must be more of an effort on both sides to find other avenues for export, said the West African state’s Commerce Minister, Habi Mahamadou Salissou.

“We have estimated oil reserves of 320-million barrels, yet no one has come to explore them. We have beautiful textiles, and, one day, we will have bountiful harvests of millet and sorghum,” he said.

“All the Americans need to do is come and knock on our door.
Our country is open to them.”—Sapa-AFP

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