Last Thursday, Gallup World Poll partnered with FEEEDS Advocacy Initiative to host the African Diaspora Business Forum featuring distinguished guests and panelists from both African and American businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. The forum served as a precursor for President Obama’s U.S.-Africa Business Forum, which will take place in September.
If one were to sum up the forum in one word, it would be partnerships. Whether it’s partnerships between governments, businesses, or nonprofits, every speaker touched on the importance of creating lasting and mutually beneficial connections between Africa and the U.S. There are many ways to encourage engagement; Alicia Robinson-Morgan personally advocated for increased Department of Commerce activity in Africa. However, more so than official engagement, what’s most important is bringing people together to create dialogue and effective partnerships. Although governments tend to create the biggest immediate impact, individual relationships can eventually turn into big waves of change.
Panel members Rahama Wright and Leila Ngjaye also stressed the importance of Africa maintaining ties with its diaspora in the United States. The focus of the forum was on business within Africa, but there’s also a growing desire for African businesses to engage in American markets. “The destiny of the African diaspora is intricately interwoven with the destiny of Africa,” Ngjaye said. In addition to engaging with its diaspora, she also commented on how to effectively engage youth, women, and SMEs (small to medium enterprises) through human capital development, legal rights protection, and the revitalization of the judicial and credit systems. On top of this seemingly endless list of goals, a critical part of reforming Africa’s economy is also how to help “those furthest behind”—the microbusinesses that line the streets of African towns. In order for these businesses to engage in effective commerce, Wright argued that rather than focusing on extraction, government initiatives needed to focus on moving people along the value and supply chain.
So what exactly is the role of the U.S. government in this? Wright believes that the U.S.’ importance lies in its ability as a convener. However, after the channels of dialogue have been opened, Wright reminded audience that it was up to the members of the dialogue to follow up, and not to place full responsibility on governments. As the founder of the social enterprise Shea Yeleen, Wright has seen first-hand the effects of partnerships in key sectors, trust between investors and businesses, and support between members of the diaspora.
African-U.S. policy is unique, in that it is one of the only policy areas that builds administration after administration. Catherine Byrne expressed her excitement at seeing the extensive bipartisan dialogue about Africa that occurred both publicly through the government and privately, in interpersonal relationships. By getting programs on “autopilot”—securing policies for periods of a few months to a few years, Byrne says that these programs see a much higher likelihood of surviving an administration change. Continuity of policy is key to encouraging local deployment, democratic change, and boosting business confidence.
Following Byrne’s remarks was a lightning round with presentations from three speakers. U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Advocate Ngozi Bell spoke about how to effectively enhance the natural entrepreneurial ability that seems to pour out of Africa. Bell truly believes that small businesses are major economic drivers, stating that “If small businesses are allowed to behave like the Apples of the world, like the Googles of the world, then there are no barriers. They will view the world as a marketplace. […] That is how you change an economy.”
Along with business and governmental engagement, analyzing data is also key to understanding how to most effectively engage. Magali Rheauhalt of Gallup presented data that hinted at a strong connection between leadership approval and job climate. The implications are that perhaps one of the goals of future U.S. government engagement is to stimulate democratic processes to strengthen leadership, which would in turn give way to a better job climate. Due to Africa’s rapid growth, an average of 18 million jobs need to be created every year until 2035 to accommodate the new labor force. In Africa, 2/3 of jobs are created by small businesses, with new shops opening every day. To do this, Bell emphasized how critical U.S. SMEs were in this process. Additionally, organizations such as the SBA’s Small Business Investment Company should be utilized in conjunction with SME engagement to help overcome some of the major financing obstacles that businesses tend to run into.
Lastly, USAID’s Nicholas Bassey closed out the forum with a few resources for the many nonprofit and business owners in the audience. USAID provides support for diaspora communities, early stage initiatives, and finance catalysts through a variety of programs, grants, and competitions.