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Obama Africa Visit Could Boost Local Economy

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wave prior to boarding Air Force One before departing for a week-long trip to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, June 26, 2013.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wave prior to boarding Air Force One before departing for a week-long trip to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, June 26, 2013.
— When a famous foreign leader or celebrity visits a factory, hotel or restaurant, the effect is usually great for business. U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to South Africa this weekend could have a similar impact on the local economy.

In 2006, then U.S. Sen. Barack Obama paid a visit to Petite Designs, a Soweto furniture company owned by Issy Penniken.

"It was a great privilege to have Senator Obama come and visit," Penniken said. "It opened my eyes. It got us to meet different people internationally and we got orders from them. We got a big job thereafter for a project in Saudi [Arabia]. The list just goes on and on."

Obama toured the factory for about an hour, wanting to learn how USAID had helped the business.

Penniken said he was inspired and encouraged by Obama on a personal level. At the same time, the visit opened doors and grew his business by around 25 percent, he said.

"A lot of the clients that want to do research on me, once they Google, and they see the article, it just gives them confidence to deal with me, and that's a nice reference for me," he said.

Obama's official South Africa schedule does not say where he will dine or if he will visit local businesses. But if he does, his presence could be perceived as a stamp of approval.

"The key thing there with the affinity is that it adds to that person's reputation, that business's reputation," said Andrea Crystal, a lecturer in the Department of Strategic Communication at the University of Johannesburg. "Because it's almost like Obama is saying, 'You know, what you're doing is brilliant, I love what you're doing.'  And that's something very powerful to have behind you."

On a political level, Obama's visit to South Africa does a similar thing

"Having him on your soil is, I think, a visibility," said Crystal. "It's a very important move for the government, that here is one of the most powerful leaders in the world coming to little old South Africa at the bottom of the tip of Africa."

From a public relations and marketing standpoint, the visit is invaluable, Crystal says.

"The amount of money that that guy in Soweto would needed to have paid for the message that has been sent out there, he wouldn't have been able to afford that.  So what comes with the visit is the currency, it becomes a social currency.  It is I have this person of stature that has visited my factory, my shop and has shown interest in what I do."

Eduan Naude co-ownes Gramadoelas, a Johannesburg restaurant that has hosted former U.S. President Bill Clinton and movie stars such as Denzel Washington.  Naude feels the famous customers give his business a certain cache.

"I think people like to think they might rub shoulders with a celebrity if they come along here.  We've had a lot of movie stars and politicians and people here," he said. "I'm very happy when they come and I'm very proud to have hosted them. You know, even the Queen of England was hosted by us."

Naude wouldn't mind another presidential visit.

"I don't think the president's going to make it here, as far as I know nobody has said anything to the effect that he might pop in," Naude said. "But I'd be happy if he did, of course, yes."

If President Obama does visit, it will undoubtedly make for another celebrity photo on the wall.

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