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African Exporters Seek Enhancements to American Trade Preference Legislation

Seeing their apparel exports to the United States decline in recent years, African countries are asking the U.S. Congress to extend provisions of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act that allow African apparel makers to export to America clothing made of Asian fabric.

Enacted in 2000, AGOA allows duty-free access for most African produced goods into the American market. While U.S. trade with sub-Saharan Africa has been increasing significantly, almost all of the gains come from purchases of oil and gas from just a few African countries.

Trade analysts say the apparel industry is Africa's most promising export sector. But growth has been hampered by a provision that requires that clothing made in Africa come from fabric manufactured either in Africa or the United States. Currently, most of the fabric comes from China. Uncertainty over whether the fabric waiver will be extended has prompted US apparel buyers to cut back on their African orders.

Rosa Whitaker is a trade consultant representing several African clients.

"You have about 50,000 people dependent on these AGOA apparel jobs," said Rosa Whitaker. "All of the apparel they make is made with third country fabric. So if they're cut off from the fabric source, they're cut off from the apparel orders, which means the people are cut off from the jobs."

Mpho Malie is Lesotho's minister of trade and industry.

"What we're advocating for now is that the third country fabric provision should be extended to 2015, which is the extension Agoa was given [for two years] in 2004, to be extended to 2015," said Mpho Malie. "And we are saying that the sooner that is done the better for all of us. Because it will bring about the certainty and predictability in terms of the buyers being able to place their orders."

Critics say an extension would give to Asians trade benefits that belong to Africans.

But Ghana's trade minister Alan Kyerematen says Africa does not have the financial resources to build textile mills.

"But someone has to pay for these mills," said Alan Kyerematen. "We don't have the resources. So we need time to build a lot more garment factories."

He says he favors more Chinese direct investment in African textile mills. Thus far, he says, Chinese companies have been reluctant to invest in producing fabric in Africa.