LAGOS - U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and a slew of American business executives are meeting in Nigeria to encourage trade they say will create jobs on both continents.
The visit to Nigeria, expected to be among the top 10 economies in the world by 2050, and one of Africa's smallest but most innovative nations, Rwanda, is designed to transform the perception of Africa from an aid-dependent continent to a region brimming with business opportunities, Pritzker told The Associated Press in an interview.
She said Africa has seven of the fastest 10 growing economies in the world; a burgeoning young population and a rising middle class (50 million in Nigeria alone).
"So the message to Americans is now is the time to come and explore the opportunity in Africa,'' Pritzker said.
The figures for Nigeria tell the story: In 2014, U.S. exports to Nigeria topped $5.9 billion and imports from Nigeria totaled $3.8 billion, compared to U.S. aid of $694 million last year.
The latest U.S push comes as Nigeria is hurting from the downturn in the economy of China, which last year overtook the U.S. to become Nigeria's biggest trading partner. China accounted for 22.5 percent of Nigeria's imports in the third quarter of 2015, compared to 9.6 percent from the U.S., according to Nigeria's National Bureau of Statistics.
Nigeria's current economic woes, including lower prices for oil that produces 80 percent of government revenue and a related slump in the naira currency, are positives for investors, said General Electric's Jay Ireland, who runs the U.S. multinational's Africa operations.
"This is the time to come in,'' he said, adding American companies should be looking at long-term investments that ride out the cycles of oil prices and currency exchanges. "We're going to be here for a long time and feel very comfortable investing in Nigeria. ... [It] provides a tremendous platform for growth.''
GE is investing $200 million in Nigeria to build two facilities to assemble oil and gas and power generation equipment that the company hopes to export to other West African nations. The company employs nearly 500 people in Nigeria.
U.S. businesswoman Rahama Wright's firm partners with some 1,200 women from two cooperatives in Ghana to produce shea butter beauty products sold in the United States.
"We're adding value by helping these women process the shea into a product, we then connect that product to the U.S. marketplace in a way that allows women to generate sustainable living wages and gives them a chance to be financially independent, simply by connecting the dots,'' Wright, a former Peace Corps worker, told AP.
Shea butter used in beauty products is among items given liberal trade access to the U.S. market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act that Obama recently extended to 2025 to encourage Africans to build free markets and open their economies.
Wright said the biggest challenge she's encountered is the power blackouts that bedevil many African enterprises. Last year, she got a local utility company to extend a power line to their factory in northern Ghana, bringing both electricity and water to villagers. She said it brought home to her the importance of Obama's Power Africa initiative.
She emphasized the importance of including the massive African diaspora among stakeholders, people like herself, who grew up outside Syracuse but whose mother is from northern Ghana. "I really do believe that that is the secret sauce, one of the things that really will be part of that turning point'' building Africa out of poverty and into prosperity.