Several African-born persons “pitched” their native lands to Minnesotans at a recent African business forum. Commodities, vegetables and machinery are presently the three top products exported from Minnesota. Trade officials agreed that more business exchange and investment in many African nations would be welcome and profitable for all concerned.
Because the African immigrant population is steadily growing in Minnesota, the state “wants to deepen our connections” in the continent, said Minnesota Trade Office Executive Director Kathleen Motzenbecker. “Africa, and especially Eastern Africa, is such a vibrant part of the world,” she told over 40 business persons who were invited to the May 7 East Africa Business forum at Thomson Reuters’ Eagan headquarters.
Motzenbecker later told the MSR that her main purpose for being at the meeting “is to meet people. We have great resources here, whether it is in food technology, water technology [and] medical devices.”
“The economic influence of Africa can no longer be unknown,” added Fred Nabeta, a past chairman of the Uganda North American Association Convention in Minneapolis. He was among several persons, including the current Tanzania ambassador to the United States, who gave presentations during the forum. “Anybody who wants to make money, that is where I’d go.”
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“Some of the fastest growing economies in the last five years are in Africa,” stated Asratie Teferra, founder and owner of Maryland-based Zebra Consulting International. “The economy in my home country [Ethiopia] has been growing at a rate of 10 percent.”
Unfortunately, the world’s second-largest continent is still misrepresented and often seen as a “hopeless continent,” said Teferra. “American perception of Africa hasn’t changed for most Americans.”
“What makes CNN and the other [American] media outlets is all about the negative,” said Tanzania Ambassador to the U.S. Liberata Mulamula. “I’m glad to speak about something other than conflict.” She noted such things as “abundant natural resources” and “peace and political stability” as attractive points in her country. “This is what we can offer,” said Mulamula.
Foreign businesses in the past would come to Uganda “on their own terms,” explained Nabeta. “They did not buy any local materials… They even brought their own employees. Why bring cement [when] we can make cement here? Why employ people from [elsewhere] when we have labor in our country?” He advised instead that U.S. businesses come to Uganda as “partners.”
Asked later if Uganda still suffers from former dictator Ida Amin’s oppressive regime, Nabeta told the MSR, “I think it has hurt us a little bit. It built a culture of mistrust, and the ability of governance was questioned for a very long time.
Left: Asratie Teferra (l) and Fred Nabeta
Uganda is a people’s country, [but] it has taken the current government a long time to build trust back into the international community.”
Corruption does exist in some African countries, but that’s not unusual, admitted Teferra. “There’s corruption everywhere,” he pointed out. “I don’t think corruption would be ever eliminated but…I think the growth of the [Ethiopian] middle class and the maturity of the legal system would balance that out.”
Although businesses from India, China and the United Kingdom have more presence in Tanzania than the U.S., “Investment opportunities are plenty” in her country, Mulamula pointed out.
“Instead of asking why China is in Africa, you should be asking yourself why you aren’t in Africa,” said Teferra. “We want U.S. businesses to do business in Africa.”
Afterwards, Nabeta expressed his disappointment that there weren’t more representatives from large corporations at the forum. “I would like to get the big players in here so that they can hear some of this stuff,” he stated.
“That’s a good point,” said Mshale News Publisher Tom Gitaa, who moderated one of the panel discussions. “But the big players already are in Africa. We want to expand — we want the small guys [small businesses] to come, too.
“We want the mid-sized African American businesses to feel comfortable” in Africa as well,” said Gitaa.
When asked if her office will open a branch in an African country as it has in China, South Korea, Brazil and Germany, Motzenbecker told the MSR, “The current priority is on the current four offices that we have. We want to make sure we get it right with those countries, and then think about expansion.
“We are not forgetting Africa,” reiterated Motzenbecker. “Economic opportunities are growing in East Africa.”
Gitaa said the forum “was very, very successful. The ambassador did a fine job selling her country.”
“There are good, good stories in Africa,” said Mulamula. “Africa is rising and a future continental hope. The African Diaspora is a bridge, building business relations and people relations. Through [the MSR] I hope that my voice will be heard, that we are partners in this.”
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Related story: East African Business Forum features Tanzanian ambassador (Senah Yeboah-Sampong, Mshale, May 2014)