U.S., Too, Wants to Bolster Investment in a Continent’s Economic Promise

Courtesy of The New York Times, a report on increased US interest in African investment:

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clintonlanded in South Africa this week, she brought along a hefty delegation of executives from some of America’s leading companies — Boeing, Walmart, FedEx, G.E. — and a message: America is ready to invest in Africa.

But these companies need no introduction to the continent, which is home to 7 of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies. They are already here. Earlier this year, Walmart finalized a deal worth more than $2 billion to acquire 51 percent of South Africa’s leading retailer, MassMart.  G.E. has signed a deal with the Nigerian government to work together on infrastructure and power projects. Six hundred American companies have invested in South Africa alone.

Mrs. Clinton’s trip, expected to stretch over the better part of two weeks and nine countries, reflects the shifting image of the continent and the deepening political, economic and security stakes at play here. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when a trip to Africa by a senior United States official would focus largely on humanitarian aid and development assistance to hopelessly poor, war-torn nations.

No more. These days, the continent is widely seen as the next frontier for economic growth. Politically, African votes are sometimes crucial in the United Nations, particularly South Africa’s. On the security front, alliances with African governments to fight terrorism and piracy are very important to the United States.

“Africa is no longer an object of our fears or hopes or pity,” said Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a research institution in Washington. But “the United States is stuck in a bit of a time warp,” only recently catching up to the changing realities on the ground, he said.

Other players, most notably but not exclusively China, anticipated this shift long ago and have a significant head start on the continent, analysts say.

“China is recognizing the potential, and the U.S. is not grasping these opportunities,” said Peter Lewis, an expert on Africa at Johns Hopkins University. “They are losing the narrative.”

Again and again on her trip, Mrs. Clinton pressed for deepening economic ties, saying — in what was widely interpreted as a swipe at China — that the United States does not simply want to export the continent’s bountiful raw materials and pocket the proceeds back home; it seeks a partnership that will bring broad benefits to all Africans.

“The days of having outsiders come and extract the wealth of Africa for themselves, leaving nothing or very little behind, should be over in the 21st century,” Mrs. Clinton said in a speech in Dakar, Senegal.

That remark prompted a rare rebuke from China in the form of an editorial from the state-run news agency, Xinhua, which said that the implication that “China has been extracting Africa’s wealth for itself is utterly wide of the truth.”

On her valedictory African tour as secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton is visiting a very different continent from the one she came to as first lady in the 1990s.

If a collection of more than 50 nations that is home to a billion people who speak thousands of languages could be said to have a narrative, until recently it was one dominated, fairly or not, by war, famine and misrule.

Those wars have, with a few notable exceptions, largely ended. Even Somalia, the very picture of a failed African state, has begun to turn around. Many of Africa’s democracies have grown stronger, even in adversity and despite setbacks in places like Mali.

On this trip, Mrs. Clinton has taken pains to visit countries that are exemplars of democratic success. She began in Senegal, where a longtime president voted out of power left office peacefully, and also visited Malawi, a nation that had begun to stifle under an autocratic president. His death was followed by an orderly transfer of power to his deputy, Joyce Banda, a political adversary who now gives Africa two female heads of state. Mrs. Clinton will stop in Ghana for the funeral of President John Atta Mills, whose deputy was sworn in peacefully without anyone batting an eye.

But the biggest change is economic. The growth rate for the continent has crept up, rivaling Asia’s overall growth at the height of the “tiger economy” era of the 1990s, and it could reach 7 percent by 2015, according to the United Nations Development Program. And it is not just oil. Some of the top performers, like Rwanda, Ethiopia and Zambia, have not a drop of the stuff.

As the World Bank concluded in a recent report, “Africa could be on the brink of an economic takeoff, much like China was 30 years ago, and India 20 years ago.”

China is the biggest, but by no means the only, country making big bets in Africa, and not simply on extracting mineral resources. Indian telecom companies, Brazilian construction firms and other players in the developing world’s rising economies are betting on Africa.

“There is this newfangled, unprecedented interest in Africa,” said Chris Landsberg, a foreign affairs analyst at the University of Johannesburg. “Every single important country — whether China, France, Britain, India, Brazil, Turkey, you name it — they are all queuing up.”

American officials are quick to say that there is no fundamental competition between the United States and China in Africa: the continent has a nearly bottomless need for investment that no one country could fill.

“The United States has been present in Africa probably longer than the Chinese,” said Francisco J. Sanchez, the under secretary for international trade at the Commerce Department, who accompanied Mrs. Clinton in South Africa. “I am not going to try to guess whether we are behind, or right up even, or whether we are ahead. What I do know is that we need to be present now.”

The two countries have very different models of investment. Chinese companies, some of them state-owned, can offer megaprojects that include ports, roads and rail lines, all financed by cheap government-backed credit.

But what is good for China may also be good for the United States. New Chinese-built airports mean African airlines are likely to need more Boeing planes. Better roads and ports mean Walmart can move goods faster and more cheaply in Africa.

“I think in private there is very little U.S. concern about what China is doing in Africa,” said Mr. Moss, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Africa division from 2007 to 2008. “The U.S. is not going to build highways and bridges and airports, and that is something Africa needs, so we should be grateful that the Chinese are doing this.”

The biggest beneficiaries of Africa’s growth must be Africans, leaders from the continent say. South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, made headlines recently by saying that the trade relationship between China and South Africa was unsustainable because too much of it was simply raw materials, exported unprocessed.

“At the end of the day it is up to Africans,” said Mr. Landsberg of the University of Johannesburg. “Partnerships must ultimately be on our own terms.”

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