African ambassadors and Minnesota-based investor echo governor’s call for an improved image of a stereotyped continent.
MINNEAPOLIS – Gov. Tim Pawlenty said earlier today that time was ripe for the upgrading of the image Americans have of Africa, a step he said would enhance investment and trade with the continent.
“The image Americans have of Africa is out of date,” Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty urged leaders in both government and private sectors to make efforts to dispel the blanket perception that Africa is a continent laden with war, disease and famine. He asked Americans not to overlook rapid growth of African countries, many of which were growing at a rate “well above the rate of the U.S economy.”
Pawlenty was speaking at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, where business leaders, government officials from African countries and potential investors gathered for the Pan-African Trade and Investment Summit. The three-day conference was organized to be a platform to present trade and investment opportunities that exist in Africa.
Between 2002 and 2006, the United States’ trade with African countries grew by 80 percent to approximately $90 billion. Although the percentage is impressive, the dollar figure is still very low considering the continent’s population of nearly one billion people. Government officials and members of the private sector of African countries have in recent years increased their efforts to encourage developed countries to trade with and invest in Africa. The summit was a continuation of that quest.
Pawlenty said that understanding Africa and increasing trade and investment in the continent were also necessary for the security of the United States and a world that that, he said, was getting smaller.
“There is a basic desire for humans to be secure, but there can be no security without prosperity,” Pawlenty said.
Minnesota, which according to a U.S. Census report released in September saw the population of African immigrants residing in the state rise by 85 percent in this decade alone, was a great place to start the campaign to woo investor to Africa, Pawlenty said.
The governor also revealed that his office was looking into the possibility of him leading a delegation to Africa within the next few years.
Speaking immediately after Pawlenty’s speech, Dan Dye, the president of Minnesota-based food and agricultural product company, Cargill, said stereotypes about Africa were a great obstacle impeding attempts to get Americans to invest in the continent. Dye said he had learned a lot from his summer visit to Africa, where Cargill does business in ten countries including South Africa, Ghana, Malawi, Egypt, Zambia, Kenya and Zimbabwe, among others.
Dye said that his company’s experience in Africa had taught him the importance of understanding the continent, and urged potential investors to do more research – rather than rely on stories and pictures alone.
“You have to be on the ground to experience it,” Dye said. “Pictures do not do Africa justice.”
South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, Welile Nhlapo, and his Ghanaian counterpart, Kwame Bawuah-Edusei, also repeated the same call during their lunchtime speeches. Nhlapo said that Asians were already investing in Africa and asked Americans to follow suit.
“I urge you to be careful not to be left behind,” Nhlapo said. “Go and find out why others are going there.”
Bawuah-Edusei said that Africa was in transition from a continent that depended on handouts, to one that was self-reliant. But he said foreign investors could play an important role in making that transformation successful.
“What we need is the opportunity to work ourselves up with our dignity intact,” Bawuah-Edusei said. “Let’s get over that old Tarzan mentality of Africa. We are open for business.”
The Pan-African Trade Summit continues tomorrow and ends on Saturday with an “Africa Day” of festivities at the Mall of America.
About Edwin Okong'o - Mshale Contributing Editor
Edwin Okong'o is a Mshale Contributing Editor. Formerly he was the newspaper's editor.