By Ajong Mbapndah L
When it comes to business relations and trade between Africa and the USA, there are few people around with depth of knowledge and wealth of experience of Florizelle Liser, President & CEO of the Washington, DC, based Corporate Council of Africa-CCA.
For over ten years, she served with the office of the US Trade Representative including a stint as its representative for Africa prior to departure from Government last year. Appointed by the Bush Administration, she served through the Obama years and even out of government, her professional life continues to circle around issues of Trade with Africa as she serves as the first female President of the CCA.
Though she served in the Asia Pacific Region, and Latin America, in the course of her career, it is not until I moved to the African Region that I thought my true calling had been found, said Florizelle in a recent interview at the CCA headquarters. With a combination of her experience, and the great work done by her Predecessor Steve Hayes, Florizelle Liser is confident that the CCA is on course to write the next great chapter of US-Africa Trade relations.
The start of Florizelle’s leadership of the CCA coincided with the arrival of the Donald Administration whose African policy is still in a state of flux, but if there is one thing she is bent on doing, it is to make sure that the momentum on US-Africa Trade relations is sustained. Citing a litany of programs from the Bush and Obama Administrations that facilitated growing business ties, Florizelle said the CCA will be leading the charge in making the case to the Trump Administration on why corporate ties between the US and Africa should be a priority.
While the corporate background of President Trump may help him see the great opportunities and partnerships that abound in Africa, the broader perceptions Americans have about Africa need to change, Florizelle said. For a continent with all sorts of negative stereotypes, people will be surprised to know that in South Africa alone, there are over 800 U.S companies, there will be surprised to know that there are African companies doing so well in the continent to the extent that there are also setting up shore in the US as well , said Florizelle.
The Administration and the broader American public needs to get the message that if businesses are going to Africa, it is because of profit, it is because of a more enabling environment, and the growing interest of Africans to partner with US businesses, Florizelle said.
In her new role as CEO of the CCA, one of her first major events will be the 11th biennial US-Africa Business Summit that takes place in Washington, DC, from June 13-16. The Forums alternate between the US and Africa, said Florizelle and Washington is excited to host it again after the 2015 summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This will be a great opportunity for the CCA membership to interact with Trump Administration Officials. We have invited Officials from the most senior levels of the US Administration, Florizelle said, as she expresses optimisms for positive interactions between CCA members, African leaders and those who could be key actors in shaping the Administration’s policies on Africa.
It has been 5-months now, since your appointment as CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa. In what shape did you meet the CCA, and what has changed so far under your leadership?
Florie Liser: First of all, I have actually been here 3-months, and I was telling people up until probably this week that I have been here 6-weeks, 10-weeks. When I got too far, I had to change it to months. So, now I am saying that I have been here 3-months. I started on January 23rd and I am delighted that I had the confidence of the full board that unanimously made me the CEO. I am the first woman CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa, but I do not think that they chose me for that. I think that one of the things that I bring to the table is my long-standing expertise and experience in terms of US-Africa trade and investment and I think the second thing that I bring to the table is the array of relationships that I have both here in the United States and across the continent. And I’ve been very, very fortunate; very blessed to have been exposed to many, many stakeholders who have shared the vision that I have, which is that the economic relationship between the US and Africa is an important one, a vital one. And that in this new job, the Corporate Council on Africa, is going to build on the 17-years that Steve Hayes was here.
I commend him for the excellent leadership that he had of CCA. But now, I believe that we want to build on CCA’s strengths. I think that we are one of the most successful organizations focused on US-Africa business engagement. We are the only ones in my view that are focused solely on Africa. Other organizations have Africa as one of the areas that there are focused on, but we are solely focused on Africa.
In addition, we have, I think in terms of our successes, also been able to bring together numerous businesses from across the continent. We have African members first, and we have not only large members of companies that are mega companies, but over 50% of our members are small and medium-size businesses as well. And I think that, that sort of breadth of engagement also makes us a bit unique, because we are not solely focused on what is best for US businesses. And of course, we are strong advocates for US businesses, but I think we are probably well-suited and best situated to promote mutually beneficial relationships between US and African businesses.
We held last year I think you know; a US-Africa business summit where we had more than 1400 participants and over 600 companies that attended. This was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. And actually, I was there. I was there wearing my previous hat. In addition, last year we had 6-trade missions, we hosted a range of very senior officials from Africa who came here, including the president of Mozambique, high-level trade delegation from Nigeria and so again, I think that we stand on our past and our history, but we also have a vision for the future.
And one of the things that we will be faced with now as I’m coming into leadership here, is how we work with the new US administration to make sure that the issues of US-Africa economic engagement are a priority for them. We hope that we can make the case for expanding and enhancing the US-Africa business relationship. And so, the issues will not only be, for example, Peace, Security, Counterterrorism, which are all very important, and in fact security is one of our core issues here.
We have 10-issue areas, as you know, which go from agribusiness, to health, security, trade, infrastructure, finance, energy, and power, etc. But, one of the things that we will definitely want the new administration to recognize is that US businesses are in Africa because it’s profitable. Because it is a critical part of their bottom lines as businesses. And CCA is, and plans to be a very strong voice for US businesses who are engaged in the Continent, and also for African businesses which are expanding regionally and also some of them who are investing in the United States. You know, it’s not one way and a lot of times people lose sight of or lose track of the fact that there are African businesses that are so successful that they are investing in the United States. We have our upcoming US-Africa Business Summit in June and it will be our 11th biennial meeting. We see that upcoming summit as one of the first opportunities for high-level officials from Africa, as well as CEOs, and US CEOs to meet with various people from the Trump administration. And we have a theme which sort of reflects part of what I was saying.
We will get back to specifics of some the issues you raised as the interview proceeds. Prior to your appointment, you serve with the office of US assistant trade representative for what? Over 10-years?
Including a stint as Assistant as Assistant US Trade Representative for Africa?
How is this background helping you at the CCA?
So, you know; it’s such a natural progression to come from there, because the major role of the Assistant US trade representative for Africa was for us to promote US-Africa trade and investment. That was my major responsibility and I did it for 13-years actually. From 2003 until I left the US government at the end of December of 2016. Though I had worked in other regions of the world like the Asia-Pacific region, and Latin America, when I moved to the African region, I thought, wow, this was my dream job. I had studied Africa, when I was in graduate school, and visited Africa, a number of times, even in other positions. And so, this was really an incredible opportunity for me, on a hands-on basis, to promote US-Africa trade and investment. So, I worked with African heads of state, and ministers of trade and finance and those in charge of investment promotion on the African side as well as US businesses that will come in to ask questions about where they should go and issues that they had working in different countries. I worked with members of Congress, and I had the privilege of working under a number of administrations. I was actually put in that position under the Bush administration, and then continued through succeeding administrations. And I think that job was a perfect platform for me to come now and work here at CCA to continue doing really a lot of things that I’ve been passionate about for so long.
With this unique experience, in the government and now with the CCA, which is a private entity, you are in a good position to offer an assessment of business ties Between the USA and Africa. At what point are we? Where are things at the moment? What is working? And what is not working and what needs to be done to make things better?
First, I think, the average American citizen would be surprised at the number of US companies that are operating in Africa. There are thousands and thousands of them there. I think, in South Africa alone, there are almost 800 US companies that are there. And so, we are all across the continent. Our business is all across the continent in a range of sectors. We are not just in extractive. Although obviously, we have a huge stake in the extractive industries, we are also in telecommunications, manufacturing, and retail. We could go down the list of CCA members and beyond who are there.
Now, what has changed? Even though many US companies have been in Africa for some time, the landscape has changed and is changing in Africa. You know, where there were many conflicts in the past – there are only a small handful of conflicts today. Where in the past there were governance and leadership issues, today, there are only a small number of countries where we could say that we have concerns about governance. Where it was difficult to identify where opportunities were maybe more than a decade ago, I think today, many more US companies are aware of the opportunities in Africa. It has the highest rate of return on investment there and the opportunities for joint ventures are probably endless.
These are economies that are growing more rapidly than most economies in the world, they have a burgeoning middle class, and disposable income is rising rapidly. They have a youth bulge, which also has implications for the kinds of products and services that are desired on the continent, and there is a strong interest on the part of Africans to actually partner with Americans. Therefore, a lot has changed.
Now, what is not working? What is still difficult in many countries, is the doing business atmosphere. The environment for quickly getting into a country, getting your operating licenses, being able to get access to the right partnerships. These are things, which again, a number of countries in Africa are working on. There are some who have done great in terms of the World Bank doing business scores that are rapidly rising. But, I think anyone who goes to Africa also knows that there are some difficulties in navigating the African market. Whenever US businesses would come in to talk to me before a trip, and they think, “well, we’re going to go there for a week and we’re going to close X deal!” And I think, emm… I do not think that is going to happen. And so, US businesses will still find sometimes that it takes a little bit too long to get things moving and solidify some of these partnerships.
But, because the benefits are so great, because the opportunities are so wide. I think many of them realize, “okay, it’s going to take more than one trip.” It may actually take me numerous trips and it might even take up to a year or more, but I am not going to run away, I am not going to lose this opportunity because I am impatient. So, yes, I think there are ways that things could operate more smoothly, more efficiently, more effectively in Africa, and I think many US businesses would say that. But again, the opportunities are enormous and so I think businesses are buckling down and trying to find a way forward. Even if it is a little bit tough sometimes, even if it takes a little longer sometimes than they want.
As we speak, there is a new administration in the USA, the Administration of President Donald Trump and people do not yet know the direction of its African policy. From your experience in government, and signals you have seen, what should Africa expect? Could his business background be a silver lining for business ties between USA and Africa?
I mean, clearly it could. Obviously, he is a businessman, he understands the benefits of doing business, not just here in the US, but across the world. Because he is not just operating in the US. He has operated in many places. In fact, I was in Lesotho in November and someone was sharing with me that they thought there was a factory there that was even producing some products for one of the Trump product lines, yeah. I did not get a chance to visit the factory, so I cannot definitively say it is true, but I had heard that.
So, what could this mean for the US-Africa business relationship – to have a businessman in the White House? It could mean a lot. But right now, it appears that those who our new President is looking to are largely in the area of military expertise, and people who when they look through the particular lens that they have-I’m not saying that’s a Bad lens, but, when they look through the lens that they have, they see Africa in a particular way. And those issues such as security issues, counterterrorism issues, issues of peace, and conflict resolution; because that’s their sort of area of expertise, I think whenever they put on their lenses to look at Africa as well as other parts of the world, they see it through that lens.
I think one of the things that will be very important to do will be to help Trump Administration Officials and the President himself to take that lens off, and to put on the lens that many of our businesses and members of CCA have. Which as I said earlier, is there are in Africa because Africa is a profitable place to be. Everybody else in the world is scrambling to be first in Africa and to have access to what that market provides. we hope that with a strong voice from CCA as well as our members, that we can push that point, and hopefully have a Trump Administration which in short order will be talking about progress in pursuing on the business relationship with Africa. And again, as a businessman, we are hopeful that President Trump and his Administration will do that.
I think some of them may already be leaning in that direction. I know Secretary Ross of the Department of Commerce, mentioned Africa in his confirmation remarks, I believe, he talked about the fact that you really could not ignore Africa as a continent, and opportunities there. I understand last week, just last week that a number of the Finance Ministers and Energy Ministers that were here met with Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. So, I was very encouraged by that and we are hoping for a robust US -Africa economic and business relationship.
As you mentioned in your last answer, “there is a growing competition for business opportunities in Africa,” you have the Chinese, you have Japanese, Indians, in addition to the traditional European countries all expressing interest. How do you make the case for US business in Africa? Why should African countries prefer or pick US businesses as partners as opposed to all these other partners trying to get in?
I actually do not think they should just choose us. I think that the Africans are fairly savvy now. This is not like the olden days where people just moved in and told Africans what to do, and treated them as if they were children. The Africans are mature, they should not allow countries to just come in, or businesses from different countries just come in and sort of dictate. I think that there is so much to be done there and so many opportunities that the key I think, will be to manage who can work with them most effectively, in which areas.
Just as an example, it could be that you know, to actually physically build out the hard infrastructure in Africa, perhaps which is something that the Chinese can do best. But then, if you look at the engineering side of it, maybe that’s something that US businesses actually can provide for or someone was telling me of an example of where in a particular country, they were saying that the locomotives were being provided by the Chinese, but the engines were being provided by the US.
What you’re finding is that Africans are not, I think been forced to choose should I pick the Chinese or the American, should I pick the Americans or the French, should I pick the Indians or you know, I think what they’re doing and I think it’s a wise thing to do, is looking at what are the different partnerships we can have with different countries?
I think, what the US business brings to the table about why Africans really like working with Americans is first, I think many Americans go in with high-quality products and services. Therefore, the value for dollar is there. You may get something cheaper from someone else that is fine. And I’m not just speaking of Chinese, but you may get a product cheaper, but what do you get with the US is in terms of the quality of the product.
The second thing is, I think US companies are also valued for the fact that we are working with people on maintenance. We are not just going to come in initially sell you a product or provide a service and then not build in to that relationship, what it is, what’s required to maintain it, you know. So, what is the point of a road and three years later, it is falling apart, or getting equipment that would not last? What is the point of having, equipment and you know two years later, it is breaking down. Maybe you would have been better off buying what would last for longer. I think we do that.
The other thing is the partnerships. I think that we; our US companies, we are very interested in transferring skills and technology to our African partners. That is not to say that others do not do it, but I think we are particularly good at those transfers of skills and technology. The kind of partnerships we then have with our African partners are a reflection of that. So, those are some of the reasons actually, we hear back from the Africans about why they like working with us. We treat them as partners; we do not bring them in at the lowest levels of the business and leave them there. And to be frank, I visited a lot of factories built and run by others, we won’t say who, where if they left, even though the majority of the workers in the factory were African, the Africans actually would not know what to do to keep the business going. They were not brought in to understand the entire value chain and what has to happen from point A to point Z to keep the business running. And I think that, that is something that I think Americans; when we come in, we bring people in and we have them as full partners in knowing all the aspects of the businesses that we partner with.
From June 13-16, the CCA will be hosting the 2017 US-Africa Business Summit; can you shed some light on this?
CEO Florizelle Liser with PAV’s Ajong Mbapndah L at the CCA Office in Washington,DC
Yes, this will be our 11th Summit. We have been having these summits both here in the US and in Africa. In fact, we alternate back and forth. So, we have them every other year. They are biennial, the last one was in Ethiopia, we had over 1400 participants over 600 companies, I think over 37 countries represented there from across the continent, and it was quite successful. This year it is going to be in the US and we wanted it here. We were glad it was our turn to host. Because, we thought with the new US Administration coming in, this was going to be an excellent opportunity to bring together all of our stakeholders, our members, and many beyond our members to actually come together and to talk about the US stake in Africa, and the partnerships working with Africa.
Over the years, we have had probably over 40 heads of state. We hope we will get a few; these are tough times because you know there are a lot of competing interests. The G-20 is coming up. I think the Africa program it actually happens almost on the same time frame in Berlin, but you know, we are hoping we will. However, if we do not, we will have lots of high-level Officials, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Trade, Energy, Health, Agriculture, and so forth. We will also have some doing business in whatever country as a part of it. Some sessions will be on doing business in Ghana, doing business in Ethiopia, or wherever as a part of it.
We are also planning to have an event on the Hill. We have been invited to have an event on the Hill, where we will be having a dialogue with key members of Congress, both from the Senate and the House and from both parties. The hill is so important especially right now. They have always been important, and will always be important. We hope to have a good turnout of both US and African businesses, and CEOs covering a wide range of issues, core issues, all of CCA’s core issues will be touched on during the summit. So, we’re inviting, I hope all those who read this article will hear about this summit and will register, and come and be a part of it. Be that active voice that is needed right now, so that the US Administration can hear from all of us.
You mention the new US administration, and this will be the first summit that is taking place under the new leadership. First, what level of participation do you expect from them? Secondly, it was reported in March that there was an African Trade meeting out in California, where there were no Africans because of visa issues. The Africans who were supposed to turn out were never granted visas to come for the summit. Is the CCA concerned about this development?
Well, I think first of all, you asked who has been invited; we have invited practically all of the highest-level people from the Administration, who we think have a stake in Africa. So, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Energy, we’re still waiting though for some other people to come into key positions throughout the Administration. So, again, at the lower levels, or some of the more prominent folks that we would normally engage with are not even there yet. But, we expect to have participation from a number of US Agencies. We are also having a session that will be about engagement with Agencies of the US Government. And we’re getting all of the highest-level people that are there, from the Department of Commerce, to OPIC, EXIM Bank, the US Trade Representative’s office where I came from; to come and be on a panel that will talk about our programs across those different government agencies and institution. MCC will be a part of it, people who do work on power Africa will be there as well. So, we think we’ll have a very good discussion of what the US ship brings to the table under this Administration, as well as others.
In terms of the visa issue, of course, you know we have to be a bit concerned that, that happens. I don’t know the particulars of why that happened with the California conference, but what we’ve done is, we’ve talked to State Department and we’re going to be working with the State Department to let them know which Africans have been invited and also you know, as people register for the conference from different African countries, we will be sending that information to State Department so that they are aware of these people who will need visas.
And then CCA for our African partners who are coming from the private sector, we will be providing them with visa letters. So, a letter of invitation, which is often needed for getting your visa. We will do that, and we have kind of broadly let people know that. And as I said, we’re just going to work with the powers that be here to facilitate getting our African delegations into the summit. That is the best that we can do, and we are going to hope for the best and hope that it will be positive.
Prior to leaving the USTR, you work with two Presidents one Republican, one Democrat. How have you seen the evolution of US-Africa business relations over the years? Who did more? Was it the republicans or was it the democrats?
Well you know, that’s a great question and I love that question. Now, my experience you know is that under President Bush, a lot of really incredible programs were launched. so we can talk about PEPFAR, to work on HIV-AIDS, we can talk about the Millennium Challenge Corporation, that was set up and provides grants to build infrastructure in Africa, there was a program on malaria and girls’ education and so forth. Then you get to the Obama administration, and he also launched some really effective programs like Power Africa, Trade Africa, YALI, and so on, but here is what I would say that distinguishes them. I think that the trend has been more to move from initiatives the US has with Africa that are more, could more be described as aid, and development assistance to initiatives that are really more focused on trade and business engagement. And so, I very much think that is the trend. My expectation under the Trump Administration is, it will continue moving in that direction.
Another Program that I did not mention, that was very important under President Obama, was the President’s Advisory Council on doing business in Africa; we call it the PAC – DBIA. Very focused on the doing business relationship, the economic relationship, and that one had CEOs from different US businesses there. We are looking to see now, whether under the Trump Administration that would continue, one would hope it would.
He gets it, he is a businessperson, and we expect that to continue that way. But, I think the major sort of trend has been that we recognize that yes, aid is important, development assistance is important, but what is most important, what has probably more of a sustainable impact on Africa is private sector driven partnerships and relationships. Public-private partnerships pushed by and supported by the private sectors on both sides. Power Africa is a good example of that, Trade Africa is a good example of that.
So, that is my experience and let me just say, that’s not to say that we should not give aid. We definitely should, we have some countries in Africa right now that are facing famines , we want to make sure that we provide that kind of assistance and relief, but I remember from many years ago, they talked about how if Africa was able to increase its share of world trade by just one percentage point; at the time, they had 2% of world trade Now, they have about 3%, but the movement of 1% additional trade would actually generate every year, three times the amount that Africa gets in aid from everybody in the world. Just 1 percentage point of trade.
And I use that example, it is an old one. It came from the old Blair report that came out, Oh, my gosh! More than a decade ago. But, the reason I use that is, because it shows you the power of trade and economic engagement. That no matter how much aid you have, if you are generating your economic growth through private sector investment, through greater trade, the production of value-added products on the continent, the creation of jobs that come from investment and from trade, you can do way more with that, than you can with the aid – yeah.
Last question Ms. Florie, you have spent a huge part of your career working on Africa, and I believe that you have done a lot of travel, different countries, and different people…
I have! I have!
What are some of the changes that you have seen?
Yeah, well, even when I first started going to Africa, and it wasn’t a surprise to me, but you know, the pictures that you see of Africa here in the United States, the ‘Image’ I should say, of Africa here in the United States, is definitely not what is going on in the continent.
I went to cities that were vibrant, or growing metropolises even a decade, decade and a half ago, but you do not see those pictures on TV. You see children with big bellies and flies in their eyes and, so Americans typically don’t have the vision of Africa that it is.I’ve been to factories that are producing everything from eyeglasses, and toys, and an apparel and footwear and you know, inputs for automobiles and automobiles themselves that are being produced in Africa.
African countries have the potential to do what China has done says Forizelle Liser
When I see those thousands and thousands of workers in factories all across Africa, producing pepper sauces and all sorts of value-added agricultural products. And I’ve been to cut flower farms, and just you know, it’s incredible places where they’re packing green beans and shipping them to the US and Europe. The image I get is of an Africa that is a part of the global economy, that plays an important role in global value chains and how that Africa is critical to how everybody else is developing in the world too. We need Africa to be a manufacturing floor, we need Africa’s labor. Africa is going to contribute more to the global workforce in the next 20 years than any other region of the world. And you know, FDI into Africa is increasing rapidly.
As I said earlier, the rate of return on investments is increasing rapidly. Africa is a place now where people who are institutional investors you know, from the state of California or you know, people with pension plans here in the US, where firefighters and policemen and their money is being invested in Africa to their benefit. And that’s an Africa that I see today and the potential of an Africa today that even 10 years ago, we did not see. People were not putting their 401(k)s investments into Africa that kind of way 10 years ago, so the potential of Africa to be a fully integrated partner into the global economy is something that I can actually see it. And you know, or read about it and so you know when I hear you know different fans talking about. Oh yes, you know were to be investing these hundreds of millions or we have a call out and you know, the call has been filled in terms of you know, the investment bonds and so forth that are being issued. You’re like wow!
This is what Africa is about today, I’ve been to stock markets in Ghana, in South Africa, in Botswana, and so I look at Africa and I see an Africa which, and let me end on this note, you know; “they are now where China was maybe 30 years ago,” And, if they continue in this direction, to me they have the potential to, not as one single economy because clearly they’re not, but then you know we have the concept of free trade area that’s been launched and where you know, 10 years from now, for sure, maybe we will be looking at it all as one large African market and economy.
I see them as having the potential in individual countries to do what China has done in terms of manufacturing, in terms of investment, in terms of business partnerships, companies that are present there, South Africa, Boeing just opened up an office in South Africa and Kenya, GE has an office in Kenya.
I mean we are seeing a lot of US business engagement there. There is a reason why they are going there. They are not just going to Africa and setting up offices and businesses and investing there because they want to do good. And they do, do a lot of good things, a lot of for corporate social responsibility in Africa, but are actually there to do well. And so, the opportunity for mutually beneficial relationships between US and African businesses in all sorts of sectors and is a part of the global economy is really kind of the vision that everyone has for Africa now. It is certainly not my vision, but I can personally attest to it.
Ms. Florie Liser, thank you very much for talking to Pan African visions!
Thank you for having me!