By Ajong Mbapndah L
CCA President Florizelle Liser
With sanctions eased, U.S companies are relishing the prosepcts of doing business with Sudan .Taking the lead is the Washington,DC based Corporate Council on Africa which is working on Trade Mission to Sudan for its members in early December.
In a recent interview to discuss the state of US-Africa business ties, CCA’s President Florie Liser said, Members were excited with the opportunity of doing business with Sudan. The decision to undertake the Trade Mission follows a briefing to the CCA from State Department Officials on scope of measures taken by the Trump Administration to ease sanctions . Florie Liser also disclosed that during the recent World Bank/IMF meetings , the Sudanese Minister of Finance held a heavily attended interactive session at the CCA to discuss business related opportunities in Sudan.
Revisiting the last US-Africa Business Summit, Florie Liser said it was a success and post summit feedback has been very positive. While the choice of the host country has not been made, Florie Liser did confirm that the next Summit will take place in Africa .Mozambique has so far expressed strong interest and a decision is expected to be made at some point next year.
“I do think that the Trump Administration will want to gauge very positively on the issue of our commercial relationship with the nations of Africa,” said Florie Liser in answering questions on the way forward for US-Africa Business ties. On the encouraging signs, Florie Liser cited the presence of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Wright at the last US-Africa Business Summit,calls from President Trump to African leaders, and the reception he had for a number of African leaders on the sidelines of the last UN General Assembly Meetings.
Florie Liser, good afternoon.
Florie Liser: Good Afternoon.
You are approaching the symbolic one year milestone as president of the Corporate Council of Africa; how is the organization doing under your leadership?
Florie Liser:Well I’d like to say, and I think my board would agree that it’s been, first of all, my one year appointment is at the end of January, so we’re not quite there yet, but I think I’ve been here maybe nine months and it’s been really exciting. I feel like we have been building on CCA’s brand of twenty three years but I’m also enlivening our vision, doing some new things that we haven’t done before, but also some things we’ve done in the past, but making sure we do them in ways that meet the needs of our members. So again, we are building on the brand we have, but we are doing some new things and repositioning ourselves in the market and making sure that people understand what CCA brings to the table and our value added for those companies that are members. We’re growing our membership, since I got here I think we’ve gotten seventeen new members, including some big companies, some medium size companies, some small companies; so I’m very pleased about that.
One of your signature events in the past nine months that you’ve been president, was the USA -S Africa Business Summit last year. What feedback are you getting from members and participants on post summit progress?
Florie Liser: So, the summit I thought was a big success. We had over 800 registrants. We had the Head of State for Mozambique, President Nyusi. We had the president of the African Development Bank as well, who was the key note speaker. And we also had for the first time, I think we were the first ones to do this, to have someone senior from the Trump Administration, Secretary Wilbur Ross from the Department of Commerce to come and give remarks about the US strategy for engaging with Africa from an economic view point. So we were very excited about that and thought the summit was a success. As a result of that, we got some new members. As a result of that, we have new initiatives that we are working on and continuing as I said to make clear what CCA has to offer to the US and African Business community.
At the time the summit took place, many were still wondering on the approach that the Trump Administration would take towards business ties with Africa. What is your take on the way his Administration is approaching US Africa business ties?
Florie Liser:I think that if we listen to secretary Ross’ speech, at the US South Africa Business Summit, he made the point that Africa is an important economic partner of the United States, that we have a number of programmes and initiatives with them that are important. He mentioned the President’s Advisory Council on doing business in Africa. We call it the pack DBIA and that was something that was launched actually under President Obama, but he himself Secretary Ross, is supportive of it continuing and he has already spoken to the members of the pack DBIA. He talked about AGOA, he talked about two way trade between US and African Nations and he made it clear that Africa is a place of opportunity for US Businesses. He also encouraged African Ministers and other Officials that were there, to consider what US businesses bring to the table when countries are considering bids for different projects. Sometime American companies are dismissed maybe because of cost but Secretary Ross was saying ‘you do get what you pay for;’ and for US companies, we bring technology, we bring skills transfer and we bring the kinds of partnerships that we think are longer lasting and mutually beneficial which is not necessarily the case for some of the other kinds of partnerships that Africans may have; but I think his message was a positive one and since then, there have been different interactions.
President Trump has called different African Heads of State, economic issues have maybe not at the The agenda for the call most times I think it’s been security and peace and issues, but the US Africa economic relationship has come up and then during the luncheon that president Trump hosted for African Heads of States, I think there were about eight of them in New York, the issue of the US Africa Economic Relationship also came up there. So I’m thinking that it may not be prominent in the news and so forth, but I do think that the Trump Administration will want to gauge very positively on the issue of our commercial relationship with the nations of Africa.
I would like you to discuss a few other events that you have had in the course of the year beginning with the World Tourism conference in Rwanda, I think. How did that go?
President Trump meeting with African Leaders in New York during the UN General Assembly,I do think that the Trump Administration will want to gauge very positively on the issue of our commercial relationship with the nations of Africa says Forie Liser
Florie Liser:Well that went very well, but I want to mention one other that we did in early August, that was in late August but in early August, the Corporate Council on Africa, hosted the AGOA Private Sector Dialogue and this was at the request of the US government. We’ve done it before and so we were in Togo for that and had several sessions with lots of both US and African companies who recognized the benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the possibility of increasing and enhancing the kind of trade that the US does with Africa focusing more on value added products, value added agricultural products etc. So I don’t want to pass that by; and we had companies there like Whole Foods who is sourcing our value added Shea butter products from Togo and other countries in the region and looking to do more and so we were very pleased with the participating in the AGOA forum which happens annually.
And then in late August, we were in Kigali Rwanda for the World Tourism Conference. As you know the Africa Travel Association became a division of the Corporate Council on Africa in late 2015, and in 2016 we started planning for this world tourism conference which we had in August and it was a great conference in many ways but the thing that I thought that was most interesting was we had sort of people who represent the whole platform in tourism, small travel agents and tour operators but then we also had companies that represents sort of the new platform for tourists in the world.
We had Expedia, we had Uber, Trip Advisor, Tastemakers Africa. We had a number of organizations and businesses who were doing tourism in Africa in different ways and so we were very pleased to have those both old and new platforms , stake holders, and African Tourism come together. It was a very successful forum. President Kagame opened it and we also had as a part of our opening session, the Secretary General of UNCTAD, Kituyi. UNCTAD had just put out a report on tourism in Africa as a major driver of economic growth and diversification on the continent and so when we reached out to him and said, ‘you’ve just put out this report, we would love for you to come and say some words ,he did do that.
So again we had excellent turn out at the conference and also a really good dialogue about how US and African stakeholders in the tourism sector can work together.
And on the side lines of the UN General Assembly in September, the CCA also hosted a number of events. Do you want to shed more light on that?
Florie Liser:Yes, we had several events while we were up there in different sectors, but let me start with the one that was the highlight for us which was a Presidential dialogue on the future of US -Africa Business Relations and at that session we had President Kagame and then Mr Dangote who is on the CCA Board on a panel that talked about how they perceive the future of the US Africa Business Relationship and the key issues and areas that have to be focused on. So they talked about regional trade in Africa, how that has to be strengthened, they talked sectors like agriculture where there has to be a lot of focus in African given who Africa is and what Africa is about.
They talked about misperceptions about investing in Africa which even today still exists. President Kagame said that corruption is not something that is African, this is something that exists all over the world. The importance of American businesses is having the right perspective about Africa and the opportunities there. That was a large amount of what they talked about and that the perception of Africa relative to the reality is something that we still need to work on if we are gonna promote greater investment in FDI from the US to Africa, but also more partnerships.
Mr Dangote talked about the importance of partnerships where American companies come to the continent not just to sort of do business but to kind of go on their own but where they in a very collaborative way sit down with companies like his own that are doing things all across the continent. It’s a Nigerian company but they are probably in a dozen countries across Africa in a wide range of product areas from cement to producing value added agricultural products.
As we do this interview, the US lifted sanctions on Sudan. What is the take of your members on doing business in that country?
We look forward to taking members to Sudan so that they can kind of see for themselves what’s on the ground and what the opportunities are there, says Florie Liser
Florie Liser:Even before the sanctions were lifted, we were talking with some of the companies from Sudan. One of them Sudatel is a recent member of CCA, they joined in September. And talking about this, the US government did indeed make the decision in October to lift the sanctions, this would be a big deal, and they’ve been in place for quite some time. There are still some sanction related restrictions, but for the most part, the sanctions were lifted and would allow for US companies to be there, which in the past they could not. And so even as we were waiting to hear what the decision would be, we were already talking about what were some of the things they might be able to do from CCA’s perspective and one of them is a trade mission. The other day, on Monday, we had meeting here at CCA, it was a packed room. I have never seen a room like that, it was standing room only. I’m sure the fire Marshalls might not have been happy if they had come, but we had first US Government people from the Department of State come and brief our members and others about what this meant with lifting of the sanctions and the specifics of what they could now do in Sudan. But it was a very positive briefing and then we had the Sudanese Minister of Finance and his delegation who had been here for the World Bank IMF meetings and they came in to also talk about some of the particular sectors that are ripe for investment there. Everything from renewable energy to mining, IT etc They have a lot of opportunities there and it’s kind of like a whole new market that Americans haven’t been able to actually get into and so there’s a lot of excitement and we’ve decided and announced during that meeting on Monday that CCA will be organizing a trade mission to Sudan in early December. So we are very much excited about that and looking forward to taking members to Sudan so that they can kind of see for themselves what’s on the ground and what the opportunities are.
What other measure of activities will the CCA be working on for the rest of the year. I understand you just mentioned a Trade Mission to Sudan in early December that should be very welcome news for them. What other activities do you have in place for the rest of the year?
Florie Liser:So we are looking at a number of things, so for example, similar to that, we have been discussing with Morocco, the possibility, we don’t have anything firm yet, but we’ve been discussing with them the possibility of doing a CCA trade mission to Morocco maybe in the first quarter of 2018. And so we hope that that will come to fruition.
We’ve also been talking with the UN Economic Commission for Africa, UNECA, about an event that we may organize on the side lines of the African Union Summit in January in Addis. The major point of it would be to bring companies, both US and African companies there to have an opportunity to say to Heads of State and Ministers, ‘here is what we need in different sectors in order for us to drive more investment and more business;’ because we know that the AU has it’s AU 2063 vision, we know that the SDG’s have been established and talk about private sector, but on the ground, there are still a number of various issues and challenges and we thought that while Heads of States are still there, maybe what we could do is talk about them in a couple of key sectors, what do private sector people think people think need to really happen in terms of implementation. They have the plans and they have the vision, but the question, is the actual implementation.
So one example, Mr Dangote who as I said is on my board, mentioned there is an AU visa where he wouldn’t have to get individual visas, country by country, as he goes throughout the continent to explore business opportunity. He said in principle, it’s there, but in practice it’s not functioning. He still has to go country by country to get visas. And so these kinds of issues have to be addressed to move both people and goods across Africa in ways that promote, trade, promote investment, promote business. We really need to address that and we want to see if we can get, maybe the first of a number of events like that, but we wanted to see if we could get commitments to do just a couple key things that are identified and then come back maybe six months later, nine months later and see which countries had actually been able to deliver on those commitments and then what kinds of maybe investments or business ventures had come out of that. Just the lifting of some of those constraints I think would be a major incentive for lots of companies both US and African to do more business in Africa. So it’s an idea, it’s not 100% certain yet, but it’s kind of moving forward.
I had the opportunity to meet with the new head of UNECA, the new Executive Secretary, her name is Vera Songwe. We met last Saturday and discussed this again. This is not the first time we’ve discussed it and I think that it’s something that we will do. They think that CCA could do it and we think also that we could do this kind of event well, bring the private sector to the table to talk about what needs to happen. Something concrete and we are looking forward to that. I’m very excited about the possibility of that.
And no matter what the CCA does, everyone know that it’s Flagship Programme is the USA, Africa Business Summit. The last one took place in Washington and a lot of people left with the expectation that the next one might take place in Africa. Is this principle still in place and have you settled on the choice of the host country?
President Felipe Nyusi of Mozambique at the last US-Africa Business Forum, Mozambique has express strong interest to host the 2019 Summit
Florie Liser:Well, we haven’t settled on the choice of the host country yet, but what’s exciting, we do it every other year, so we don’t feel pressed to make the decision right away, but we do have some countries that have already expressed an interest. One where the Head of State has actually written a letter and said ‘we would like to be the host is Mozambique,’ and I said the next US Africa Business Summit will be in 2019 and so I’m hoping sometime in the first part of 2018, that we’ll make a decision and then actually start the planning for it. Even though, we have a little time but we are not gonna wait till the last minute.
Is it a certainty that its going to take place in Africa?
FlorieLiser:Absolutely. It will take place in Africa.
And the last time I had an interview with you, you were also very optimistic, very upbeat about the future of the US Africa Business ties. Now you have been President of the Corporate Council of Africa for the last nine months; do you still maintain that assessments? What are the things that you’ve seen that support your assessment? And what are the impediments to the kind of business ties that you want to see between the US and Africa?
Florie Liser:So, I mean on the upside, I think that US investments into Africa are increasing but of course as a share of total, outbound FDI, Africa is still relatively small. When we were in New York and I didn’t mention this, we had several sessions with some countries, either their Heads of State, in the case of Gabon but also with the ministers about five or six ministers from Nigeria and we had the opportunity to talk about the kinds of business environment in those countries and what they are doing. It was very positive. Beyond oil, beyond the gas, a number of the opportunities, we had people of there in the real estate sector, there are a lot of interesting and progressive things happening and in real estate. We had people from the Health Sector who were looking at not just medical equipment but things that are happening in both the communicable and non-communicable diseases area. And so the continent is right for investment. Lots of countries are investing there. Lots of US companies are investing there. We have companies that are expanding. Boeing has opened offices in Johannesburg and Kenya. There are various examples though off companies that are really looking at Africa as an opportunity.
Last Friday I took about four CCAs members to meet the Prime Minister of Cote D’Ivoire and we had such an excellent meeting because we talked about the opportunities there in aviation services. They were saying that at the end of their crises that they had in 2010, they had about 1 million people trafficking through there that dropped way off, now they are up to 2 million transiting through Abidjan and we had another company there from CCA that’s looking into equipment that’s been sold there, and the agricultural sector. We had someone there who is doing work in the education sector, and capacity building working with them on export processing zones ,and again we had someone there from one of our energy company who knows specifically what block they would like to bid on for the new oil fields that are in Cote d’Ivoire and we talked about the MCC compact that Cote d’Ivoire will be signing in November. President Ouattara will be here, we hope will have an event to host him and so essentially there are lot of good things that are happening in Africa, and at the CCA we are trying to be at the center of as many of them as we possibly can.
We can’t do everything, we want to be strategic and we want to make sure that we are supporting our members in the key areas, in the key countries but again we think that we can make a difference from across a wide range of countries and across a wide range of sectors and our members represent that. We can do it for both multinationals as well as our smaller mid-caps and SMEs that are members of the CCA. We are getting ready to launch a membership drive, CCA membership drive to bring in more members into CCA, both US companies and African companies, big and small. And I’m very excited about that because I think that we have something that we can offer to many companies that are operating on the continent.
Before we get back to membership to conclude the interview, let’s talk about the challenges. What is it that African countries can do to improve their business climate? What is it that you will recommend they do so that they can attract more US business interests into the continent?
with Nigerian Vice President Prof. Yemi Osinbajo,African countries need more reforms to ease the business climate and attract more foreign direct investment says Florie Liser
Florie Liser:A number of them are doing it and in some cases they really need to be focused on it. Using Nigeria as an example, their scores on the World Bank doing business, ease of doing business index, not very good and one of the things that I really admire that they are doing now, is they have a team across a number of industries led by the Vice President Osinbajo, putting in specific measures, regulations and so forth particularly aimed at specific things that they have to do. Reducing the number of days to get a license to operate, having a one-stop shop so people don’t have to go tracking all around to different ministries to figure out what to do. All of these things they are actually implementing right now. My assessment is that in another year we will see that their scores will improve because they’ve been focused on it. They are not just talking the talk but they’re also walking the talk. So things like that, ease of doing business in your country is very important. Governments in Africa take the lead on that. And if they make it easy for companies to do business there, then business will come. If you make it difficult then businesses have lots of choices and they have choices not just across the continent because they can decide I’m coming to this country and not to yours in Africa but they have choices all around the world. They can say well, we are not going to do with African countries because they make it too difficult and we can go to Latin America or South East Asia or wherever. But I think ease of doing business is one thing. I think some other issues are important, we don’t want to ignore government’s rule of law, these are things that are very important because, you know, you can make it easy for companies to get licenses to operate but if rule of law is really not being honored and respected, if there is corruption etc. companies are gonna say well no it’s too difficult to do business there for those reasons. So I think governments can do a combination of things that make it easier for businesses to be there.
Obviously in areas where there is conflict, those countries really have a lot to do to attract business there. Many countries in Africa frankly are not in conflict and then you know, you have a newly elected president in Liberia, newly elected president in Angola, Kenya we know newly elected president once we know how things will unfold, in Rwanda, President Kagame has been reelected. I think for these different countries, the systems are working, democracy is working, rule of law is working and so I think we’ll see investments and business engagements in those countries. That’s what businesses are looking for.
Last question Florie. You said you are on a membership drive. Can you make a pitch to companies out there both in Africa and in the USA on why they should join the Corporate Council on Africa. What does the CCA offer them?
Florie Liser:So, first of all, I think that even though there are competitors out there, there are certain things about CCA that are unique. We are a business Association which has for all of its history been solely focused on, the only place we’ve been focused on is Africa and promoting business between US companies and African companies, between the United States and Africa generally. We are an advocate ,both here in the United States as well as on the continent for making sure that people understand what the opportunities are and advocating for the kinds of policies, both US policies and African policies that really make it possible both for businesses to operate on the continent. The other thing that’s unique about us, we do have lots of large multinational members, multinational company members, we’ve got a lot of the big guys that are also members of the Chamber of Commerce but we have probably more than half of our members are mid-cap and SME companies.
We also have probably the biggest associations in terms of membership. We have more African members than any, we feel that we are not just representing the big multinationals on the US side, we feel very strongly that our role is to advocate for more business engagement and so we feel that we can offer African companies something. We can bring them here so that they can have the kind of access and connections to the right people here in the US. We can even introduce African companies that may be smaller to bigger African companies in Africa. So again, our model is actions, access, connections, insight. We think that we provide insight into the doing business environment. What are the key issues? What are the key challenges?
We think that we can easily speak to those and do so on behalf of our member companies. So again for both big and small US and African, I don’t think that there is an association that can a more effective lead than us. I’m not saying that they don’t bring something to the table, I have nothing negative to say about other organizations that are doing some of the same things that we do and then when you look around who is doing trade missions? Who is taking US businesses to Africa to see what is possible on the ground. CCA has been doing this for years and now we are sort of owning it and doing it in more effective ways. I was just talking to my team about when we go to Sudan, we’ll have meetings with different ministers in charge of all sorts of sectors there but were also gonna take the companies that come with us on trade mission. We want to have them do a site visit, so that they can actually see for themselves some of what is happening on the ground. Because you go to countries, you can sit in conference rooms and hotels and, you know, offices and buildings and really not see for yourself what’s possible and I was saying to my team, ‘we are not gonna do that. We are going to have those meetings but we are also gonna get the people out of those meetings and out to see some things that are on the ground in Sudan. You know people haven’t been there for a long time. A lot of people haven’t had a chance to see. I haven’t been to Sudan. I’ve been to many countries in Africa. I have never been to Sudan. So I do not want to just sit there in a hotel or office building and see nothing. So another thing unique about CCA’s is that we do trade missions and I think we do them quite well and we’ll be doing them in bigger and better ways, going forward.
Florie Liser, thank you so much for granting this interview.
Thank you for having me. Thank you for coming back and following up.