The  U.S. President Barack Obama recently completed a week-long tour of Africa, visiting Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. Many observers have suggested that Obama is trying to keep pace with China, whose president visited South Africa and Tanzania a few months after taking office. It is clear that Mr. Obama’s visit was aimed at commercial engagement—certainly a shift from the aid-related relationship with African countries for which his predecessor became known. Rather than focusing on a pledge to give solely financial aid to African nations, Mr. Obama has sent a clear message that the U.S. is ready to take the continent seriously from a business perspective. In this regard, he is certainly drifting closer to the approach of the Chinese.

President Obama Addressing young leaders of Africa

President Obama speaks to 600 Young African Leaders from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda.
Photo Credit: Pete Souza

In South Africa and Tanzania: A focus on Business Opportunity

During his visits in South Africa and Tanzania, President Obama articulated this paradigm shift, outlining his vision for a US-Africa relationship that would go “beyond aid to…a partnership of equals” based on the capacity of Africans to solve their own problems. The $7bn “Power Africa” initiative he announced would generate electricity for sub-Saharan Africa, creating opportunities for everyone from school children to entrepreneurs. The initiative, beginning in six countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania) will ultimately help Africa bridge the gap in energy supply—a constant challenge across the continent. In fact, in 2010 a study conducted by Dalberg for the International Finance Corporation and “Lighting Africa” showed that in 20 years, Africa was on track to become the largest un-electrified market in the world. This statistic includes a rapidly growing number of people without grid access. “Power Africa” can move the continent toward reliable electrical infrastructure, it will do much to develop successful industry and unpack opportunities in Africa.

President Obama Playing soccer in Tanzania, Africa

Obama plays with the innovative power producing Socket Ball in Tanzania
Photo credit: White House

In Senegal:  Strengthening Democratic Institutions and Advancing Security

While the economic aspect of the President’s trip seems to have received the lion’s share of public attention, President Obama chose to begin his visit in Senegal – a country important for non-economic reasons. The Obama Administration’s U.S. Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa, announced just weeks before the President’s visit, is based on four pillars: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development. Whereas the second and the fourth pillars took center stage in South Africa and Tanzania, in Senegal, Obama’s public agenda focused on pillars one and three.

 At a joint press conference held by the Senegal’s President Macky Sall and President Obama in Dakar, Obama praised Senegalese democracy, political stability, and dynamic civil society. Obama’s choice to visit Senegal seems motivated by an effort to promote democracy in Africa. Yet if Mr. Obama wished merely to make a symbolic stop in a West African democracy, he could have visited Cape Verde, Nigeria or Ghana – the latter two being key economies in Africa’s rapid growth.

Perhaps Senegal stood out among those options because of the regional geopolitical context.  Senegal could be an ideal partner for the US in combating the expansion of terrorism in West Africa and the increase of drug trafficking through Guinea-Bissau. Indeed, regional security was a key focus of President Sall’s remarks during the joint press conference. “Our two countries are cooperating for peace and a safer world rid of scourges of terrorism and cross-border crime,” the Senegalese president. “I commend your leadership, particularly in these times when the situation here in the Sahara has become a global threat and deserves special attention. I hope our countries can put together a joint strategy in response to this new challenge.”

Africa Rising

So what does all this mean for Africa? Much has been said about opportunities to invest in African agriculture and to market products to the expanding middle class—in other words, the economic potential of the continent. Obama’s visit, and much of his rhetoric, acknowledges the economic powerhouse that Africa is already becoming and will almost certainly continue to be.

Increasingly, the global balance of power is shifting and necessitates a re-framing of relationships along the lines Mr. Obama articulated: “a partnership of equals.” His strategy acknowledges a hope for mutual benefit; “As we support these efforts, we will encourage American companies to seize trade and investment opportunities in Africa, so that their skills, capital, and technology will further support the region’s economic expansion, while helping to create jobs here in America.” Similarly, his stop in Senegal signaled the extent to which addressing regional security concerns will also require a partnership, to the benefit of both sides.

African countries are rapidly evolving into ever-greater players on the world stage. As the four pillars of the U.S. strategy show, global actors must recognize that Africa is rising and develop a multi-dimensional view—and engagement strategy – for mutually beneficial relationships with these rising sub-Saharan powers.

Modou Fall and Abdourahmane Diop are consultants at Dalberg Global Development Advisors, a strategy and policy advisory firm dedicated exclusively to global development and innovation. Modou and Abdourahmane are based in Dakar, Senegal.