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BLOG ENTRY (JANUARY 2015)

I first travelled to Africa over 30 years ago as a college student. I was writing my senior thesis on the role of foreign investment in the economic development of the Ivory Coast, a country which was then the success story of West Africa.

When I mentioned to people in the U.S. the focus for my research, I remember that many expressed surprise to being interested in business and Africa. I spent that summer gathering research and doing volunteer work with other American college students in the Ivory Coast.

After college, I returned to Africa again, this time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali. I lived in a dried mud hut with no electricity or running water and taught improved gardening techniques to villagers. It was one of the most enriching experiences of my life and provided a grass- roots perspective to life in an African village.

When that two- year assignment ended, I decided to pursue an MBA degree. I was still interested in how business and management could play a key role in economic development. I remember briefly considering an MBA which required a regional focus; however Africa was the only region not offered.

I worked for fifteen years in international business in the U.S. and Asia. It wasn’t until recently, that I found myself back in Africa. This time it is East Africa. The whole of Africa has evolved greatly, particularly with business. Now, Africa is the hot market. Seven of the ten fastest growing economies are in Africa, and many overseas businesses are exploring ways to expand in the region.

My current position as Commercial Counselor with the U.S. Commercial Service in Nairobi is to support U.S. businesses that want to enter the Kenyan market, as an exporter or investor.

The change from 30 years ago, when Africa was certainly not on most U.S. companies’ “radar,” to today is dramatic.

Last summer, President Obama hosted the Africa Leader’s Summit, and many Kenyan government officials and business leaders attended the event, often meeting with U.S. companies looking to enter the market. One Kenyan business leader commented ‘the questions were not about why to invest in Africa, but rather when, where and how much?’

Part of my job is to counsel U.S. companies on doing business in East Africa, and I never try skim over the challenges. I clearly state that many challenges exist; from corruption to lack of infrastructure, and that this may not be the right market for some of them. On the other hand, other U.S. businesses are surprised when I say there are good opportunities in Kenya for their companies in a range of sectors, from energy to franchising.

I see other developments taking place. One U.S. business executive I spoke to recently said Africa is the target region for his company, and that they want to be in all major markets within the next ten years. At the U.S Embassy, we now give several briefings a year to students from U.S. MBA programs on study trips to the region.

So Africa has changed. And business and trade are playing a key role in its development.

Francis ‘Chip’ Peters
Commercial Counselor
U.S. Foreign Commercial Service


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