Weekly Columns

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker recently returned from a diplomatic mission to Africa where she discussed ways to increase bilateral trade and investment between the U.S. and Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria.

It’s no coincidence that Secretary Pritzker’s first visit to Africa included Ethiopia, Africa’s second-fastest growing economy, and Nigeria, the continent’s largest economy. These are markets ripe for U.S. companies—including many small businesses in Arkansas—that could benefit dramatically if we increased trade with Africa.

Arkansas exports $5.6 billion in merchandise each year. One way that we can improve our economic outlook is by significantly increasing that number. The potential for U.S. businesses of all sizes in African markets is enormous, so I am pleased to see the Secretary working with her counterparts in these countries to create opportunities for new partnerships. Trade abroad truly does equal jobs at home.

If you need further evidence that trade is good for our economy, the Business Roundtable provides some strong data to show how many jobs trade has created in Arkansas. According to the organization, 327,000 jobs in Arkansas are tied to international trade. That means that over one of every five jobs in Arkansas depend on trade. Those numbers will only continue to grow. Arkansas’s trade-related employment grew eight and a half times faster than total employment from 2004 to 2011.

Each of these data points has the potential for a dramatic spike if we had a coordinated trade plan to increase U.S. exports to Africa.

Despite the United States’ considerable involvement throughout Africa, our current system of export promotion and finance with African nations is little more than a poorly coordinated patchwork of more than a dozen government agencies that businesses find too difficult to navigate and that fails to provide support to exporters. Bottom line: the U.S. does not have a harmonized export strategy for Africa while our global competitors do.

This is why I joined my colleagues Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Christopher Coons (D-DE) to introduce a bill to increase America’s competiveness throughout Africa by forcing better coordination between U.S. government agencies and departments, establishing comprehensive strategic goals and marshaling private investments to improve U.S.-Africa business activities. This bill challenges us to increase exports to Africa by 200 percent and gives us the incentive and a template for how to reach that goal.

A key provision of our legislation—establish a White House-designated senior coordinator to review current export strategies with the ultimate goal of significantly increasing our imports to Africa—was included in the law that authorized defense spending for this year. 

A robust trade strategy with Africa is vital for our economic prosperity. Africa is developing a healthy middle class that is hungry for U.S. products. We just need a comprehensive strategy to allow U.S. companies to expand to these growing markets.  It is my hope that the first visit to Africa by a U.S. Secretary of Commerce in over a decade is a signal of a newfound intention and focus toward this goal.