The final session of a forum on a U.S. trade measure that extends special trade benefits to many Africa countries takes place Wednesday in the Ghanaian capital of Accra. Ghana's president, John Kufuor, has called on the U.S. to extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows for duty-free imports from Africa to the United States until 2020. Naomi Schwarz has more from our regional bureau in Dakar.

President John Kufuor, speaking at the opening of the AGOA forum in Ghana's capital, Accra, said the act needs to be extended so Africa can fully utilize its benefits. 

"Given the time constraint and the very serious capacity challenges, we must admit, Africa can hardly exploit the benefits of this huge initiative anywhere to the full [amount]," he said.

President Bill Clinton signed the initiative into law in 2000.  President George Bush extended the act, which was originally intended to end in 2008, but is now scheduled to continue until 2015.

Speaking from Ghana, the U.S. deputy assistant Secretary of Commerce for Africa, Middle East and South Asia, Holly Vineyard, acknowledged there is still work to do to improve trade between Africa and the United States.

"What the African Growth and Opportunity Act did was it created it a trade strategy for the U.S. in dealing with sub-Saharan Africa which had largely been absent prior to that," she said.  "So what it has done is it has given us some tools for working with the sub-Saharan African countries. But just because the tools are there, just because the incentives have been provided does not mean all the work is done."

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, in her opening remarks to the conference   Wednesday, noted that the sub-Saharan African countries' share of world trade is only two percent, down from six percent in 1980.

She said increasing this share is the most effective way to fight poverty in Africa. She also said the U.S. government remains committed to a successful outcome in the World Trade Organization's Doha round of global trade talks.  She said success there would mean a reduction of agricultural trade distortions and increased market access for agricultural and manufactured products.

The program director at the Ghana-based non-governmental organization Third World Network, Tetteh Hormeku, says, right now, U.S. trade policies do not help African exporters.

"To qualify for AGOA, a country is required by the U.S. law not to intervene in support of local farmers, for instance by giving them subsidies," he said.  "But at the same time, the U.S. continues to give subsidies to its own farmers. Now that is an imbalance for me."

A total of 39 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are currently eligible for AGOA.  To meet its requirements, countries must, among other things, have market-based economies and eliminate barriers to U.S. trade and investment and promote the rule of law, political pluralism, and human rights.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to speak, via digital videolink, to the conference.