The Business of Diplomacy: Prioritizing the U.S.-Africa Commercial Agenda

U.S. business ties to Africa are poised for takeoff, but success will depend on commercial diplomacy getting a boost.


The 2022 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and Business Forum, bringing U.S. and African business executives, policymakers, and heads of state together after almost a decade, showed the world that the United States sees Africa as an equal partner with a shared vision. This second summit not only revived and deepened the great expectations inspired by its predecessor; the astounding convening power from the public and private sectors on display at the summit marks it as a turning point.

Regaining Momentum

Following that first summit, a new level of interest in African markets emerged from corporate America. Iconic brands like GE, IBM, John Deere, and Caterpillar, to name a few, began to see their bottom lines grow upon expanding into Africa’s competitive business landscape. At last, the U.S. had decided to engage African markets on the terms they wanted to discuss (i.e., investment, job creation, and economic growth) and was at the top of its game regarding African relations. As a result, the business community began to understand the continent in new terms, and competitors from Asia, the Middle East, and Europe saw us in a new light.

But just as we were beginning to hit our stride with the announcement of negotiations over a free trade agreement with Kenya in 2020, the pandemic hit. In terms of the human toll of COVID-19, much of the continent fared better than the rest of the world, but economically it suffered like the rest. Across the continent, we saw a significant economic slowdown, businesses shuttering, and mass job losses. Tourism declined, supply chains were scrambled, and many countries had to assume heavy debt. Amid the pandemic, leadership changes in the U.S. blew us further off course.

After the pandemic, African economies reawakened, buoyed by the promises of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The U.S. business community has taken note of its vast potential: a colossal single market for goods and services covering 54 countries with a combined GDP of $3.4 trillion.

On the margins of the 2022 U.S.-Africa Leaders Forum, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce signed a memorandum of understanding with the AfCFTA—the only business organization in the world to do so—to ensure that the voice of American business is reflected in the final negotiated objectives. Signs of progress remain on the U.S.-Africa bilateral trade agenda as exemplified by the Biden administration’s agreement in July 2022 to continue talks with the government of Kenya via a new U.S.-Kenya Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership.

It would appear we have now come full circle, and U.S.-Africa business ties are poised for takeoff.

Next Steps

Where do we go from here? To start, we need to show up. African governments anticipate that the U.S. government will be accompanied on official visits by scores of business leaders, just as China, France, Türkiye, Japan, and the United Kingdom have done. In the first quarter of 2023, there has been a surge in high-level U.S. government officials traveling to the continent. However, not a single trip has delivered on the prospect of commercial engagement with delegations in tow. Yes, business has been discussed; but as we all know, the U.S. government is outside the business of business.

At the Chamber of Commerce, we have long believed that for our country to retain its global leadership position, we must prioritize the creation of businesses at home while opening new markets and leveling the playing field for American companies abroad. Globally, we rely on our American Chambers of Commerce (AmCham) network to help achieve these objectives, with more than 127 AmChams worldwide, more than 15 in Africa. The U.S. government also relies on this network to push for market access.

But AmChams can’t do it alone. One of the recommendations the U.S. Chamber made in 2021 to President Biden was to increase the number of Foreign Commercial Service officers. By increasing the number of commercially trained officials in the field, we can further help U.S. small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) de-risk and demystify African markets.

For the summit to be successful, we must collectively ensure that team USA shows up, led by a starting lineup of businesses.

We must acknowledge the urgency and importance of helping American SMEs enter the African market—among the key themes that emerged from the U.S.-Africa Business Forum in December, and one for which the chamber has long been an advocate.

In August 2022, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched “Advance with Africa,” a nationwide roadshow and campaign increasing U.S. businesses’ understanding of commercial opportunities in Africa, transforming the narrative around Africa’s business climate, and dispelling myths—creating new opportunities for American companies, big and small. Crucially, “Advance with Africa” focuses on empowering minority- and Black-owned small businesses, fueling a transformation that ensures equitable growth for Americans and Africans alike. Within four months of the campaign’s launch, we reached more than 1,000 diverse companies.

Each of them is eager to understand African markets but unaware of the resources the U.S. government provides to help them. Building off the success of Prosper Africa, a 2019 USAID initiative that brings the services and resources of 17 U.S. government agencies to help African and American businesses and investors identify partners and close deals, we saw a unique opportunity to partner with state and local chambers of commerce across America to answer the call of so many African governments: Bring us more of your small businesses.

A Team Sport

As much as the private sector leans on the U.S. government to help manage risk, establish regulatory standards, and open markets through trade, the U.S. government relies on the private sector to make all of the policy work meaningful and lasting. Without a pro-business agenda in partnership with the U.S. government, we will continue to lose commercial ground to China, Russia, and the European Union. Currently, Africans have an affinity for U.S. goods and services, but that won’t be the case forever.

We will also need to catch up when it comes to our national security. For example, Russia has been a historic partner for many African nations as they emerged from colonial rule. In recent times, Russia’s military influence and increase in foreign direct investment (FDI) spending have flourished across the continent. We saw this on full display during recent votes at the United Nations on the war in Ukraine. Many African nations sided with Russia or, at best, abstained from voting. This should have been a resounding wake-up call for the United States that there are other teams vigorously courting Africa.

The African continent is now a major player, and our trite old act of aid dollars is no longer unique. China has proven that FDI is a sought-after commodity. For us to overtake China’s quick start on the continent, we must do the following:

  • Pledge to host the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and Business Forum every three years.
  • Seek new trade agreements with African partners and ensure they complement the African Continental Free Trade Area.
  • Urge U.S. Cabinet members to visit Africa at least every other year and include a business delegation whenever possible.
  • Double the presence of the Department of Commerce’s Foreign Commercial Service officers in Africa.

A Turning Point

The 2022 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was a turning point; make no mistake about that. However, for the summit to be successful, we must collectively ensure that team USA shows up, led by a starting lineup of businesses.

The U.S. Chamber is a natural ally in this game. We have the national network of chambers of commerce, the international network of AmChams, and the trust of African governments, as well as our own.

For more than 100 years, diplomats have relied on the voice of business to help them be successful in the field, delivering on the American dream at home and abroad. We must ensure that the next 100 years of diplomats do the same.

Scott Eisner is president of the U.S.-Africa Business Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A former member of the U.S. Trade Representative’s Trade Advisory Committee on Africa, he currently serves on the advisory board for City Year South Africa, the Africa Leadership Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson Center Africa Program Advisory Council.


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