Commentary

Minnesota should wake up to trade opportunities in Africa

Previously published in the Star Tribune.

The state, and the U.S. at large, would do well to expand commercial opportunities. It could help security as well as the bottom line.

In the January edition of “Minnesota Business” magazine I read of a St. Michael-based company called Jet Edge. It designs and manufactures waterjet systems for precision cutting, surface preparation and coating removal.

Following a trade mission to China during the Pawlenty administration, contacts that Jet Edge made there led, by a circuitous route, to a business opportunity in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eventually Jet Edge made its first sale of $750,000 to a company in the DRC.

The story was heartwarming and further confirmed what I already knew. There is a lot of money to be made in Africa if American businesses could open their eyes.

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), state exports to Africa totaled $251 million in 2014, a 3 percent increase. Not much until one realizes that exports to Egypt alone (yes, it is in Africa) grew by 36 percent in 2014 to $36 million, and a staggering 122 percent increase to Angola, to a record $19 million. Algeria (in the news just last week as terrorists targeted tourists) was a standout, taking in $32 million in Minnesota exports.

In other words, three countries accounted for about a third of Minnesota’s exports to Africa in 2014. There is much more room for trade both ways.

To put this in context, total U.S. exports to sub-Saharan Africa, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, were $25 billion, mainly machinery and aircraft. The top five African destinations for U.S. products were South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia and Kenya.

With its growing exports to Africa, Minnesota needs to pay close attention to the continent, as there are real jobs dependent on its promise and success.

I grew up in Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city, coastal and very cosmopolitan. The city has a significant Muslim community in a predominantly Christian country, but even while I was growing up there, American influence could be felt in more positive terms than the negative ways it now is perceived. Influence was projected through business and cultural exchanges. It wasn’t as pervasive as the British influence, but it was still present. I came to Minnesota in 1990 fresh from high school to attend college and have been here ever since.

Lately, each time I have visited relatives back in Kenya in my biannual visits, most talk of U.S.-Kenya cooperation centers on the war on terror and how Americans are cooperating with Kenyan authorities; that sentiment is repeated by other Africans around the continent. There’s nothing wrong with fighting terror, but we need to reach a point where the centerpiece of American foreign policy in Africa is trade and investment.

Indeed, the U.S. State Department lists four pillars of American foreign policy in Africa, as, in order: Strengthen democratic institutions; spur economic growth, trade and investment; advance peace and security; and promote opportunity and development.

It will serve us well as a country if we can balance the four pillars, as I believe they are very much intertwined. Trading more with Africa creates opportunities on both sides and will help our long-term security. The $250 million worth of goods and services Minnesota exported to Africa can easily be doubled within the next two years if business, with the support of government, can more aggressively compete with China.

Africa is changing for the better, but my fear is that Minnesotans, and Americans, for that matter, have yet to grasp the implications for this country. The Obama administration for the last two years has been playing catch-up to the Chinese, who were quick to capitalize on the democratic and economic changes that are sweeping the continent — changes that America and its allies helped orchestrate pre-9/11.

The State Department estimates about 200,000 non-government-affiliated Americans reside in Africa. These are the 200,000 people who have obviously seen the promise the continent offers. In Minnesota, the big five of African communities are Somalis, Ethiopians, Liberians, Kenyans and Nigerians, in that order. A good start could be seeking a Minnesotan with African roots to start exploring.

tom-gitaaTom Gitaa is president and publisher of Mshale and is chairman of the Minnesota Multicultural Media Consortium (MMMC). He is a former board member of Minnesota International Center (MIC) and a current Great Decisions speaker on U.S. Policy Toward Africa.

April 7, 2015
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