Monday, September 28, 2009

On the Frontlines of U.S.-Africa Trade


When the Corporate Council on Africa was established in 1993 with the encouragement of the U.S. government, the original concept was that such a grouping of U.S. companies doing business in Africa would make it easier for the federal government to engage in trade discussions without having to speak with individual companies. Since then, that concept has grown into much more than its originators thought at the time.

The combined efforts of former Ambassador David Miller, Percy Wilson and the late David Miller spun that original idea into a powerful trade association that listed among its more than 200 members such major multinational corporations as Coca-Cola, General Motors, Chevron and Pfizer. CCA’s influence on U.S. policy toward Africa ranged from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to the U.N. Convention on Desertification. If America’s Africa policy was being discussed, CCA was at the table.

CCA Summits, such as the one beginning today, attract Heads of State and Government, leaders of international financial institutions such as the African Development Bank and titans of commerce in America and Africa. However, the one area CCA had difficulty successfully addressing was the effort to ensure that American small and medium businesses were fully engaged in U.S.-Africa trade. Getting African companies of all sizes to attend CCA conferences, including the biennial summits, has not been a problem, but getting sufficient number of their American counterparts on board has proved to be challenging. Under current President Steve Hayes, CCA has made continuing efforts to bring small and medium American businesses into the fold – from hiring specialists to sponsoring programs such as the South African International Business Linkages program to supporting trade organizations such as the American and African Business Women’s Alliance.

The latest effort for the 2009 CCA Summit involves the Africa Trade Office of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Economic Development Corporation (PGCEDC). The Africa Trade Office, which manages the Free Trade Zone encompassing the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland and Virginia, brings its recently developed matchmaking process first used at its November 2008 International Economic Summit. ATO’s manager, PGCEDC Vice President Pat Parker-Sawyer brings to this effort her agency’s special software to schedule meetings, its experience in direct video connections between Maryland-based companies and African companies in Tanzania, Senegal and Cameroon and its trade missions.

CCA and other organizations have struggled over the years to facilitate commercial connections between American SMEs and similarly-sized African companies. Large companies, such as the leading energy giants, bring tremendous revenue to African governments with resources in that sector. However, like economies worldwide, it is small and medium business that creates the jobs necessary for economic development and wealth creation. AGOA was created primarily to connect African and American small and medium enterprises, and the U.S. government has gone about as far as it can to make AGOA benefits more broadly accessed. The private sector, largely through CCA and its partners, must now find a way to successfully facilitate this process.

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