By Tony Elumelu
The three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit being convened by President Obama in Washington next week could be a defining moment for the African continent as it emerges on the world stage. The gathering could also be a defining moment for the United States as it formally recognizes the strategic importance of Africa in a multipolar world to its own future growth. With over 45 heads of state and the continent’s leading industrialists in attendance, how can the U.S. make the most of this historic summit?
First, the Obama administration and U.S. private sector should recognize the new Africa they are engaging with. No longer exclusively a natural-resource play, the continent holds great potential for a wide range of sectors, from manufacturing, retail and agribusiness to hospitality and financial services. Next week’s summit offers an opportunity to move beyond the usual conversations on aid and instead to explore new opportunities to collaborate and co-invest in initiatives that generate value on both sides of the Atlantic.
America’s generosity will always be welcome, but today we in Africa are most interested in your capital, ideas and innovations. U.S. corporations recognize this shift. General Electric GE +0.80% is investing in railway manufacturing in Calabar in Nigeria, Wal-MartWMT -0.05% has set up shop in South Africa through Massmart, and IBM IBM -1.31%has chosen Nairobi as its hub for an aggressive African expansion strategy. U.S. corporations are not alone. There is a level of world-wide competition for Africa—political, commercial and cultural—that we have not seen before. At the same time, African leaders are now able to negotiate from a stronger position and articulate and deliver what is best for our continent.
Recognizing the need for a more strategic approach to Africa amid increasing competition, the Obama administration last year designed the Power Africa Initiative, harnessing the resources and influence of multiple U.S. government agencies to address a major impediment to the economic transformation of Africa, the power sector. The initiative aims to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa by 2018, and it is supported by enabling legislation moving through Congress. Power Africa has put a spotlight on the urgent need for massive transformation in the African power sector. It sends a clear message that America means business with Africa, facilitating billions of dollars of investment and ultimately generating value both for American stockholders and African consumers.
Africa’s one billion consumers are an increasingly compelling market. The continent’s consumer spending per capita already matches that of India or China and is expected to reach $1.4 trillion in 2020. Some of Africa’s most exciting and successful businesses—such as the United Bank for Africa, with operations across 19 African countries, and Dangote Industries—have produced phenomenal returns by understanding, and catering to, the African consumer. Their respective founders are now focusing on how to invest in communities to build the growing African middle class.
An increasing number of African business leaders are channeling their wealth into philanthropic ventures. These leaders include South African mining magnate Patrice Motsepe, whose family was inspired to join the Giving Pledge initiated by Warren Buffettand Bill and Melinda Gates to encourage wealthy families world-wide to give at least half of their wealth to charity. My own Tony Elumelu Foundation is developing and backing new models of entrepreneurship to create the jobs and inclusive growth that the continent so badly needs. This trend also signals that Africa now has increasing capacity to fund its own development projects and chart its own development agenda. We are not waiting for donors; we are taking the lead in developing our continent.
Beyond the continent, Africans are also taking stronger leadership roles within the global business community. Tidjane Thiam is CEO of Prudential PRU.LN -1.83% PLC, one of the U.K.’s largest insurance businesses, and Bayo Ogunlesi’s Global Infrastructure Partners controls leading infrastructure assets globally. They—and their counterparts on the continent—understand that the macroeconomic story of Africa is aligned to a long-term investment cycle focused not on extraction but on local value addition and job creation.
In this light, the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit beginning on Monday should be less about Washington’s commitments during a time of fiscal constraint, and more about the platform that is created for partnerships between the U.S. and African governments, and U.S. and African companies. Perhaps most important, the summit will encourage relationships between American and African business leaders as partners, colleagues and friends, creating the conditions for this new Africa to bloom.
Mr. Elumelu is chairman of Heirs Holdings and founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria.