Connecting at the Human Level for Enduring Partnerships

How the United States and African Nations Can Capture the Essence of Partnership

On a recent flight to Arusha, Tanzania, I had a layover at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This was not my first time at this airport, and I’ve always found it a fascinating place to observe travelers arriving, departing, and connecting through. The airport serves as the hub for Ethiopian Airlines, from which it operates flights destined for cities across Africa. Although Bole Airport can be chaotic at times, it’s an intriguing place. The diversity of people flocking through perfectly depicts the complex and dynamic story of the growing African continent. Over the past decade, Africa has displayed its vast potential for economic growth and has proven to be fertile ground for investors and multinational firms looking to enter the final frontier. Second only to Asia in terms of the continent’s growth rate, Africa is home to some of the fastest rising economies in the world, including Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, and Senegal.

One of the many representations of the burgeoning interest in Africa’s economy occurs in Washington D.C. at the Corporate Council on Africa’s US-Africa Business Summit, which I attended this past June. The bi-annual event convenes business leaders, governments, and social sector representatives from both Africa and the United States. The occasion serves as a unique opportunity to highlight United States–Africa business engagement and to raise the profile of business opportunities for the United States’ private sector.

I was excited to see that the tone at this year’s Summit was decidedly enthusiastic and optimistic in spite of uncertainty regarding the new administration’s policy stance towards Africa. Across the Summit’s insightful discussions, there was a clear consensus that to unlock the growth potential, significant investment is required to tackle systemic challenges facing the continent’s 54 nations and no single sector can accomplish this alone.

The keynote speaker, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur L. Ross, opened the Summit by emphasizing the need for the United States to engage with Africa, stating that the United States “cannot ignore such a large, dynamic, and vital part of the world.” For many in the audience, this was an encouraging remark from the new administration. Another salient point from the Secretary was for African nations to consider the type of partners with whom they would like to collaborate. He went on to say, “I believe that, the more African nations partner with U.S. businesses, the better off both the United States and Africa will be.” While this comment may have been inspired by the administration’s unease towards China’s growing influence in Africa, I had to pause for a moment to reflect on the type of partnership Secretary Ross had in mind.

In the realm of business, the term “partner” or “partnership” can have a variety of meanings. In the development industry, I believe few institutions truly understand what it takes to be a true partner in today’s world of business. In the words of PYXERA Global CEO Deirdre White, “It takes courage to forge a true partnership. It takes compromise. It takes respect for one another’s goals, experiences, knowledge, processes, and approaches.” Partnerships are much more than writing a check. They require patience, time, and often sacrifice to make them work.

The relationships between the United States and African countries still have a long way to go to create the brand of partnership that truly benefits both sides. Functional, win-win partnerships depend on people connecting at the human level and sharing a common understanding. For private sector companies in the United States, to be in the best position to do business in Africa will require businesses to spend more time on the continent building individual relationships, learning from people on the ground, and understanding the nuances of the local context.

American businesses should seek partnerships with grassroots organizations that go beyond charitable giving. Take the IBM approach as an example. Through its global pro bono program, the Corporate Service Corps (CSC), IBM enables its employees across the world to engage directly with government, businesses, and nonprofits to address priority issues such as education, health, and economic development, often in countries into which it is looking to expand its footprint. By engaging with local organizations, the company is forging person-to-person relationships that translate into smart growth through a culture of true partnership. In Africa, the CSC program sends IBMers to Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, and Tanzania, among other locations. The result for IBM is an exploration of new markets through its employees’ valuable professional development experiences, while contributing resources and expertise to improve the capacity of important local organizations to better serve their communities.

To see mutually beneficial relationships between the United States and Africa’s diverse nations, it’s necessary to work on the person-to-person connections and change the way we think about partnership. More importantly, to give partnerships a fighting chance to endure and shape the future, let’s make them more about the people rather than solely about the institutions involved. Much like the vibrancy I encounter at Bole Airport, I envision a vast network of thriving cross-cultural relationships that help to fuel prosperity for Africa’s colorful mosaic of nations and identities.

All images courtesy of the Corporate Council on Africa.

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