America’s Black Leaders Must Forge Economic Ties With Africa

Africa summit as a launching pad for the restoration of economic ties with the continent.
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President Joe Biden’s December summit on U.S.-Africa trade presents an opportunity for Black political and economic leaders to make the most of the moment, and create new partnerships between America and the continent.

Black voters in the midterm elections flexed political muscle in coalitions in Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, and New York, among others. In Maryland, where Blacks comprise 30 percent of the population, history was made by electing Wes Moore as governor and Antonio Brown as attorney general. Surely, this is a time of unprecedented political power for Black Americans.

Adding to the moment is the United Nations General Assembly proclamation of 2015–2024 as the “The International Decade for the People of African Descent.” It is an attempt to promote diasporic development in the aftermath of slavery—including the fostering of equitable patterns of trade between Africa and Black America.

The challenge for leaders is how to use the momentum to make their states a place to rise for the Black community? One way is to bolster relations with the 49 African countries invited to the summit by the Biden administration.

The administration promised to invest at least $55 billion in Africa over the next three years, with a special focus on developing infrastructure for electrical power access. There are opportunities to team up over commercial and industrial ventures of mutual benefit.

Are leaders in Maryland—and other state politicians—prepared to organize trade delegations like Minnesota, which sponsored one to Ghana and Cameroon last year?

Under The African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000, along with other trade agreements, companies in 36 sub-Saharan countries have been granted duty free access to the American market for about 6,800 goods. Among the leading African products are cocoa, coffee, tea, fruit, nuts, shea butters, cotton, metals, machinery, spices, fashions, music and television CDs, and other items.

Leaders should find ways to encourage purchasing managers in state agencies to buy products from preferred African companies and help importers work with regulatory agencies. And, if feasible, they should lobby federal officials to require container ships from Africa to unload to workers in the ports of Baltimore and Savannah.

Just as important is participation in the African Continental Free Trade Area, agreed to by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and African Union. Implemented during the December summit, the zone has the potential to boost growth, reduce poverty, and broaden economic inclusion across sub-Saharan Africa.

Certainly, Black political and business leaders should demand inclusion from the Biden administration; a seat at the table is a reasonable expectation from a president who promised to have their backs.

Most immediately, leaders should take advantage of the gateway trade programs of the State Department. In February, for instance, the Department will sponsor a business mission to Ghana in west Africa. The Partnership Opportunity Delegation aims to bring together business, financial, and technical experts to pursue ventures in the clean energy sector.

Another program, Power Africa, supports private sector, international development organizations, and government resources to increase electricity production. Since 2013, Power Africa has helped provide access to electricity to nearly 165 million people across sub-Saharan Africa. The Biden administration spent $193 million to support the initiative and plans to invest $100 million in 2023.

Black state leaders should facilitate the partnering of business, non-profits, and investment companies with the Clean Technology Energy Network. Over the next five years, the State Department aims to steer investments of up to $350 million in projects that expand access to reliable electricity. Yet another promising venture is the development of an electric vehicle battery chain in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia in central Africa.

Understand that the region is mineral rich and contested by the U.S, China, the European Union, and other powers. The DRC provides 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, while Zambia is the world’s sixth-largest producer of copper and Africa’s second-largest cobalt producer, according to the State Department. At the December Africa summit, a memorandum of understanding was signed for the electric battery project.

Black politicians must demand inclusion for their industrial and financial entities in this potentially lucrative project.

In closing, Black state leaders should use President Biden’s Africa summit as a launching pad for the restoration of economic ties with the continent.

To the extent they can build on the momentum of the summit, they will nurture a space to rise for Black-owned enterprises, investors, and consumers—and create lasting economic partnerships with their counterparts in Africa.

Roger House is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston and author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”

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