By Christin Roby*
Development experts at the annual Foresight Africa panel hosted by the Brookings Institution believe development and business opportunities for President Trump’s administration in Africa are vast, ranging from technology and infrastructure to road creation and renewable energy.
But they also said it is too early to know exactly what the Trump administration’s priorities are regarding the continent.
Angelle Kwemo said that domestic priorities for Trump and his team will likely take precedence over international ones. “Today we are all speculating,” said the director of Washington Media Group’s Africa practice.
“He [Trump] has not promised anything to the African constituency because we did not support him, so we can’t hold him accountable for anything because he hasn’t given any signals as to what he will do,” Kwemo continued.
But other experts pointed to one prime area of opportunity being mobile telecommunications and the rapid spread of internet connectivity. With an estimated 1 billion cellphone users in Africa, increasing access to 3G/4G networks and stronger internet services, senior international advisor for Africa at Covington & Burling LLP. Dr. Witney Schneidman called the continent an ideal atmosphere for technology adaptation in major African cities.
“There is a tremendous potential to use technology, not only to capture value for filmmakers, designers and other innovators, but in doing so, Africa gets to tell its own story … gets control of the narrative,” Schneidman said.
According to a 2016 smartphone ownership survey conducted by Pew Research Center, Kenya, Ghana and Senegal ranked among emerging countries with the steepest smartphone ownership growth, with Nigeria leading the continent with a 9 percent increase in smartphone ownership since 2013.
Other resources — such as iROKOtv, a Netflix-like service in Nigeria — provide examples of internet capabilities in parts of Africa, Schneidman said. Entrepreneurs across the continent seem to be catching on and have found ways to monopolize on mobile technology with the appearance of Uber in 14 African cities across Egypt, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa and Uber-like taxi hailing mobile apps such as TaxiJet and Africab in French-speaking Ivory Coast.
“Technology can be used as an economic developer and bring people into the mainstream of African economic progress,” Schneidman suggested.
However, the legacies left in Africa by prior administrations gives some experts hope that Trump will support initiatives that are already in place.
The 2000 passing of the African Growth and Opportunity Act by former U.S. President Bill Clinton — which added 300,000 jobs in Africa — forged a bipartisan consensus that the U.S. has interest in Africa worth investing in, explained Schneidman.
George W. Bush’s 2003 President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief that has helped lower HIV/AIDS rates across sub-Saharan Africa to their lowest levels, and the bipartisan creation and recent extension of the 2004 Millennium Challenge Corporation, which has applied a revised selection process to dispersing foreign aid, are other examples of bilateral U.S. agreements that have demonstrated U.S. support in Africa.
“We don’t see a lot of controversy when it comes to engaging,” Kwemo said. “The question is what he [Trump] will do and how far he [Trump] will go.”
Schneidman said it’s natural to be concerned about the future of Africa-focused programs during administration changes when the new president has the power to cut budgets and funding to programs such as the Young African Leaders Initiative and PEPFAR.
Fears around Trump’s plans in Africa increased drastically with the recent publication in the New York Times of a four-page questionnaire from his transition team to the State Department that posed questions such as, “Is PEPFAR worth the massive investment when there are so many security concerns in Africa? Is PEPFAR becoming a massive, international entitlement program?”
Some of the questions clearly had a critical and abrasive tone, including “With so much corruption in Africa, how much of our money is stolen? Why should we spend these funds on Africa when we are suffering here in the U.S.?” This has left some observers wondering if Trump will radically reduce American engagement with Africa.
But others struck a less alarmist note, speculating that Trump’s involvement in Africa could take time to develop, just as it took President Barack Obama an entire term before making a visit to Africa and launching the Power Africa Initiative, which happened in 2013.
Dr. Ken Opalo, assistant professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, suggested that the president’s background in business might be good for Africa.
“Business and jobs are what end poverty,” Opalo said. “And if he [Trump] sticks to a pro-business agenda that might be good, especially to the extent that he brings American companies onto the continent.”
But the overall message emerging from the forum was clear: Don’t get too carried away with asking if Africa is a priority for Trump or not because it’s just too early to know for sure.
Kwemo said that, though a continuity in policy would be ideal, she also urged African leaders to “stop waiting for heaven to come from somewhere else” and instead “take responsibility and think about their own strategies.”