With increased focus on business opportunities in Nigeria and other African countries, the United States recently established the U.S.-Africa Business Center. The Director for Policy in Africa at the United States Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Leila Ndiaye, in this interview with Obinna Chima, spoke about the objectives of the initiative as well as its capacity to enhance bilateral trade between African countries and the U.S. Excerpts:
What is the objective of the U.S-Africa Business Center ?
The objective is to increase bilateral trade between the U.S. and Africa. The other objective is to make that American companies are being understood and take part in the emerging Africa. That is because everywhere you go today, they talk about emerging Nigeria and emerging Africa. So, we want to be part of this emerging trend. But most importantly, we want African companies and business leaders to sit down on the same table with American companies and tell them how to do business with Africa as well as how they can together, partner to do business. It is either we help them do business in America or together they do business as partners. We have realised a long time ago that Africa is an untapped market. We know that Africa is not just one country, it is made up of 54 countries, compared with a lot of people who think Africa is one country. We know that Nigeria is the biggest market, etc. But, how is it that we can help? It is a win-win situation because we want to make money, and you (African businesses) also want to make money. But it comes with very favourable investment climate, it comes with the know-how of the market. But only you can tell me how to do business in your country , just as I am the only one that can tell you how to do business in my country. So, that is a win-win.
But why did the Chamber come up with this initiative when we had the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), or has AGOA failed?
AGOA didn’t fail. But one can say that it didn’t reach its full potential. And both sides did not benefit from it. You have to understand that AGOA has more than 6,000 products that can enter the U.S. free of taxes, back and forth. But people are not aware of that. Only a handful of companies in Nigeria and everywhere in Africa, really benefitted. We have extended AGOA for another 10 years. So, we must focus on what is beyond AGOA. We established this center because we are proactive. We launched it last December. We advocated strongly for AGOA, we did the same for the American-EXIM Bank and as you can recall, last July, it was history. Some people had to fight so that the Congress would re-authorise what the U.S. Chamber can do. So, what we did was to make sure that we can do business in a very sane environment between both regions.
Does the Chamber have specific criteria for organisations or even individuals that intend to join the center?
You know, we never had any African company as a member of the U.S Chamber. But we have opened the door for African companies. The first thing we are concerned about is the Foreign Practice Act. So, you can be as wealthy as you want, but you have to pass some criteria. If you never worked in your life, and because your father was a Governor, and he stole money and gave you a company, you can be the wealthiest person on earth, but you can never be a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. We promote entrepreneurship, but entrepreneurship comes with a spirit. So, it is something that you need to have within your system, to build and create jobs. I don’t have anything about people’s inheritance, that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about money coming from the government, money laundering. You have to be a real entrepreneur. And any company with government funding cannot be part of the U.S. Chamber.
What about a company that got its seed capital through government funding and after some years it developed capacity and has been sustaining itself, is such a firm not qualified to be a member of the Chamber?
If you are a company, and you participated in a bid and for example, the government gives you licence to import rice, we won’t say know to such a company. But if you create your company and its revenues come from government, we cannot accept such a company. We have to make sure that everything is clean. Then, you have to understand the philosophy. The philosophy is the triple ‘A’ solution, which is – we advocate on your behalf, we advice you and we give you access. But the access tag we give you is unthinkable. At the government level, the private sector level, we host approximately 130 delegations in a year at the Chamber. There is no Head of State in this world that comes into Washington to meet the Department of States, President Obama or any U.S. government official, without stopping at the U.S. Chamber. This is because that is where the economy of America resides. That is where the dollars really reside.
Does the center offer grants to members?
We don’t offer grants. We give access to our members. We have more than three million companies whichmake us the largest business federation in the world. Consider the U.S. Chamber to be like the federal Chamber. Beneath us, you have 2,800 Chambers, both local and regional. Then, we have Chambers all over the world totaling 117. So, that is the network. We don’t give grant to anybody because we are not a bank. We are a policy shop. But we give access to where the resources can be, because we advice you and we open the door for you. Now, if your product is bankable, of course, we would look for who is interested within our members and it would be your responsibility to do your business pitch. However, I will make sure that you get to the right person or partner. I can give you an example of a success story of a company. We talked about AGOA, now we are talking about funding and how you do things. There is a company from Senegal that is in agro-business. It was the only company in the country that was really doing huge volumes in terms of refines, jams, juices in America, coming from the West Coast. She is a member of the U.S. Chamber and actually the second African companies that joined the Chamber.
Exactly five months ago, we invited the President of Afreximbank. He came, they sat down and discussed. She is already in five states and our plan was for her to go to Walmart. Walmart is my member. I want her to be in Whole Foods, which is also my member. Walmart has 700 stores in Africa, but not with the name Walmart and I want her to be in at least 20 of those stores. We sat down, we looked at the products. She was exporting to the U.S via AGOA, a member of the Chamber. Ninety per cent of her employees are women, 10 per cent are deaf people and so she is like socially responsible. And the Afreximbank promised to take the business to the next level. It took him just two hours to instruct his people to invest $15 million into this company for the lady to double her capacity of production. That is what we do. So, when a Head of State comes and if you are our member, you have the opportunity for one-on-meetings. There, you can address your priorities. Last year, we hosted President Muhammadu Buhari during his first official visit and we had more than 400 people in a room. That tells you how Nigeria is portrayed and how much the U.S. private sector is involved. So, we give you access, we advice you and we wish you goodluck. Not goodluck in a way that we want to get rid of you. That is because we would be there with you until we make sure you find a solution. But, I will never instruct a bank.
So, what does it take to be a member?
First of all, at the national level in the U.S, you just need to be registered in the U.S, no matter the size of your company. But if you are an international, then we have different programmes. There is the international division with all the different continents represented. I represent Africa as the Director. But there is a Know-Your-Customer (KYC) procedure that I do. KYC is very important. As someone with African origin, I want the best for my continent. I want to show America the best from my continent. So, I want the best entreprenuers who can roll their sleeves with Americans. For me, that is how I see emerging Africa. If you are the CEO of Dangote, Zenith Bank or any company from Africa, you should be able to sit down with the CEO of Procter and Gamble and agree on what they want to do together.
Presently, how many Nigerian companies do you have as members?
We cannot say, but we have considerable number. For Nigeria, what I like to do is to create a specific programme to be called the U.S-Nigeria CEO dialogue, which would be a specific Programme for Nigeria. It would take place in the first quarter of 2017 and by then I hope to have gotten more members from Nigeria, so that they can participate. It is also for us to have medium-sized and large sized American companies in the meeting. But at the first edition of the programme, I will just go with the top 10 Nigerian companies and top 20 or top 50 US companies.
Top 10 in terms of what?
In terms of the longevity of the company, turnover and as I said before, it has to be a company with a success story and a representative of the private sector. That is because any company that succeeds in Nigeria, should be able to spread or expand to Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, etc, and we can help. The company I talked about in Senegal, today, her products are on the shelves in Ivory Coast, Gambia, Burkina Faso, and every where. But how did it start? It started with the meeting she had with us.
But why did it take the U.S this long to integrate businesses in Africa?
I think there have been a misrepresentation of the presence of U.S. businesses in Africa. A company like Procter and Gamble or even General Electric. General Electric has been in Africa for over 100 years. The U.S private sector businesses have always been here. I always laugh because I tell people that there is no village where you don’t find gillete blade, which is made by Procter & Gamble. When you want to search for information on your phone, what do you use? Google. So, Africans consume America everyday. From Microsoft when you turn on your computer, from using using Google, you are creating jobs both sides (Africa and America), you use Facebook, you do the same. Procter & Gamble has more than 300 hundred products in Africa. These are American products. Where I agree with you is that we didn’t hear much about the U.S in areas such as infrastructure as much as lately, the Chinese. That is where I think the Chinese have made so much noise by building railroads, bridges, etc, across Africa. Maybe that is why some have the feeling that the U.S has not been present. But the U.S has always been present. But we want to do more infrastructure because there cannot be any development if there is lack of infrastructure. We have started with the programme, Power Africa. We need electricity in Africa and the U.S. has taken the step. So, we want to be more present in things that people see and feel. So, we want to be more involved in all sectors and we want to help Africa move from raw materials to develop the value chain processes in Africa. Why is it that Africa will always sell its coffee or cocoa as a raw material to the West? Why can’t they be processed into finished products, using our technology and sell in the African market? These are the things we want to be involved in.
Currency is a major part of trade and we have FX controls in some countries in Africa. How does the Chamber assist its members in areas such as FX, Customs as well as the issue of multiple taxation faced by businesses in Africa?
We do and I will give you some examples. Firstly, you know that you have the Common External Tarriff (CET) in ECOWAS. One morning I recieved an e-mail from one of our members about that. Secondly, there was a specific product that the tax was supposed to be 10 per cent, we sent our material to this country, and suddenly they said it was 35 per cent. That souldn’t have been because they have a common tarriff. So, I looked at it and said that wasn’t right because it is the same law that should be applied and implemented. So, that was how we engaged ECOWAS and we had an MoU with ECOWAS, which took care of the problem. So, that was why I said we are a policy shop. So, if the law is not favourable to any private sector person, we would make that that the law becomes a reality. The second question was about FX controls. This year, we signed an MoU also with the West Africa Bankers Association (WABA) and we were very concerned about the naira and the implication of the FX issue for foreign companies. We also invited the President of the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE), Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, to address our members in Washington on the FX issues in Nigeria. We chose Aig-Imoukhuede because of his experience as a former bank CEO and he understands the issues. Our members asked him questions and he was able to advice them better. Those who wanted to withdraw did not after the session. So, that is the kind of platform that we offer so as we come out solution and to enable each person to prosper. The U.S-Africa Business Center is going to turn a year by December and the Africa Department of the U.S. Chamber is just nine years old. But it doesn’t mean that the U.S. was not interested in Africa. The U.S. has always done business in Africa. But, it is the will of the private sector that made the U.S. Chamber to create the Africa Department.
Does the Chamber also support startups?
We do have a programme at the national level because you have to start somewhere. Of course, we support startups. Recently, we met with young entrepreneurs from 30 nations in Africa, startups only. We gave them the opportunity to present their projects. They went into a competition and we selected those that had the best business plan, etc. So, we do once in a while, engage with startups to make sure that we coach them. But our priority today is at the macro level. Our second priority is to make sure we have a strong programme for SMEs. Our third priority is to have a programme for women and make sure that we give them all the tools to prosper, especially in three sectors where we don’t see a lot of women – energy, agriculture and ICT.