High Hopes for President’s Africa Advisory Council

By D.A. Barber AFKI Original Published: February 23, 2015, 9:12 am

With names such as Walmart and General Electric on board, there’s much anticipation and hope for the newly-formed 15-member U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa.

Following the August 2014, U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker announced on Nov. 5, 2014, the appointment of 15 private sector leaders to the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa. 

The 15 private-sector members include:

  • Walé Adeosun – Founder and Chief Investment Officer, Kuramo Capital Management
  • Dominic Barton – Global Managing Director, McKinsey & Company
  • P. Bilbrey – President and CEO, The Hershey Company
  • Shelley Broader – President and CEO, Walmart EMEA
  • Teresa Clarke – Chairman and CEO, Africa.com
  • Melissa Cook – Founder and Managing Director, African Sunrise Partners
  • Karen Daniel – Chief Financial Officer, and Leader of Africa Growth Initiative, Black & Veatch
  • Peter Grauer – Chairman, Bloomberg LP
  • Jay Ireland – President and CEO, GE Africa
  • Kevon Makell – President and CEO, SEWW Energy
  • Edward Mathias – Managing Director, Carlyle Group
  • Martin Richenhagen – Chairman, President, and CEO, AGCO
  • David Storch – Chairman and CEO, AAR Corporation
  • Dow Wilson – President and CEO, Varian Medical Systems
  • Rahama Wright – Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Shea Yeleen

“I think it was a pretty good selection,” said Steven Hayes, president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa,” in an AFKInsider interview. “I think they’ve got some serious players on there who are taking it seriously.”

But Hayes said that governments, by and large, “don’t necessarily listen to the private sector, and visa versa.”

And that is the conundrum for the new President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa in the wake of mounting skepticism as to whether anything tangible will actually come out of the August U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

At a forum in Atlanta focused on trade in sub-Saharan Africa, Secretary Penny Pritzker said the private sector leaders on this council are tasked to advise the administration on how to expand trade between the U.S. and Africa, increase American participation in infrastructure and agriculture projects on the continent, and foster more entrepreneurship.

“These business leaders come from diverse backgrounds and sectors, including finance, energy, medicine, agriculture, and more – all have extensive expertise and experience in various African markets,” Pritzker said.

Obama signed an executive order Aug. 5, 2014, at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington directing the Secretary of Commerce to establish the advisory council for two years.

The advisory council will advise the president, through the secretary of commerce, on “strengthening commercial engagement between the U.S. and Africa, with a focus on advancing the president’s Doing Business in Africa Campaign as described in the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa of June 14, 2012,” according to the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration.

The goal is to provide information, analysis, and, most importantly, recommendations on the priority areas for creating jobs in the U.S. and Africa through trade and investment, including: “developing strategies by which the U.S. private sector can identify and take advantage of trade and investment opportunities in Africa; facilitating U.S. business participation in Africa’s infrastructure development;” and providing “an accurate understanding of the opportunities presented for increasing trade with and investment in Africa.”

The president ordered the advisory council to consist of 15 private sector corporate members, including small businesses and representatives from infrastructure, agriculture, consumer goods, banking, services, and other industries.

Standouts on the council

One standout on the new advisory council is U.S. retailer Walmart, which spent $2.4 billion in 2011 to buy 51 percent of South Africa’s Massmart, a company with 340 stores in 12 sub-Saharan countries.

“Walmart is interesting because actually they are making inroads into Africa,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an AFKInsider interview. “They can be controversial, but that is kind of a significant signal that a U.S. retail outfit is entering Africa.”

Another standout is General Electric, which has the kind of experience in Africa other companies – and the White House – will likely benefit from.

“GE’s growth and investment plans are long-term – we have been here for over 100 years – we are here to stay,” said Jay Ireland, president and CEO of GE Africa in an AFKInsider email interview in May.

This type of experience is important since these 15 business leaders are expected to advise the president and the secretary of commerce on policies, including the Trade Africa and Power Africa initiatives.

The Corporate Council on Africa is the private sector coordinator for Power Africa and Trade Africa. CEO Hayes says “quite a few” members of the new President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa are members of Corporate Council on Africa.

“I hope it’s more serious than some committees have been; I think it has a very good chance of being so,” Hayes told AFKInsider. “I think what will be the key is how much they really are listened to.”

Hayes notes that governments, by and large, “don’t necessarily listen to the private sector, and visa versa.”

And that is the conundrum for the new President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa in the wake of mounting skepticism as to whether anything tangible will actually come out of the August U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

“This was one of my concerns coming out of the U.S.-Africa Summit,” said Monde Muyangwa, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Africa Program, in an AFKInsider interview. “I think we had a lot of really good initiatives come out and so the question for me is implementation.”

“I do think a lot of expectations hinged around that summit, but it hasn’t seemed to have generated a whole lot of momentum in its wake,” said Cooke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

There are similar qualms about the new President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa, though there continues to be high expectations for success.

The fact that the Advisory Council was announced in August, yet members were not chosen until November, may have to do with the selection process, which strived to get the right mix of qualified people.

According to the Commerce Department’s job description, “Members shall be selected in a manner that ensures that the Advisory Council is balanced in terms of points of view, industry subsector, activities in and with African markets, range of products and services, demographics, geography, and company size. Additional factors which will be considered in the selection of Advisory Council members include candidates’ proven leadership and experience in the trade, investment, financing, development, or other commercial activities between the U.S. and Africa.”

The Advisory Council is mandated to meet at least twice a year through Aug. 5, 2016, and the first meeting is tentatively scheduled for April 8 in Washington, D.C.

The timing seems good.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration has three major trade missions and events coming up: The 2015 Africa & Middle East Business Outlook Conference May 27 – 28 in Dubai; the Trade Mission to Kenya, South Africa and Mozambique in June; and the Trade Winds – Africa Business Development Conference and Trade Mission Sept. 14 – 21 that will cover Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania.

Nevertheless, how much clout the 15 members will eventually have when they make recommendations will formulate the difference between whether this is truly an advisory council, or, as some fear, just another committee.

“I think that’s a fair question,” said Hayes at the Corporate Council on Africa. “But I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt because you’ve got some serious players on there that aren’t likely to put up with a lot. If it’s just another committee, I think you’ll see them leave.”

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