Remarks before the Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture of Dakar (CCIAD)

Charles H. Rivkin
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
Dakar, Senegal
September 10, 2015

French language version

Merci, Monsieur le President of the Chamber of Commerce.

President Niang; Monsieur le General Secretary Mboup; honorable members of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture; representatives of the Government of Senegal; honorable ambassadors and members of the diplomatic corps; leaders of business, civil society, and academia; students; and ladies and gentlemen…

I am honored and delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you about President Obama’s economic agenda in Africa, and how it’s being applied in Senegal and the West Africa region.

This is a special visit for me. In 1967, I came here as a young child because my father served as the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and the Gambia. And I lived in the ambassador’s residence here in Dakar.

Even though I was very young, I have vivid memories of so many things: from the “pirogues” that used to take us across the water to the island of NGor to the sunsets that bathed the Cape des Almadies in such resplendent light. I remember how humbled and honored we felt as a family when a local chieftain came to present us with a goat. This gift came at considerable personal expense for him – and I have never forgotten such a powerful gesture.

Through my young and innocent eyes, everything seemed to tower above me, from the palms to the ant hills to the enormous baobab trees – which to me were almost magical in appearance.

I was sent to a school where classes were conducted in French – which was a challenge for a 5 year old boy who didn’t speak the language. One day, I remember sitting at my desk, when some kind of enormous flying insect flew right at me. Instinctively, I opened the lid of my desk and it flew right in. I closed the desk.

When you’re five years old, you don’t make the most rational decisions. Here I was, with what seemed like a small dragon in my desk, unable to speak French, and terrified! On top of that, my lunch was inside the desk. When the teacher asked me what was wrong, I didn’t have the vocabulary or the courage to explain. I decided I’d rather go hungry then open that desk! It was certainly a good reason to start learning French.

There was a much more significant event in my life. While serving as Ambassador, my father passed away at his residence in Dakar. So this country carries a lot of significance for me – especially now that I have returned as the Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs.

I am proud to retrace my father’s footsteps; to represent my country as he did; and to work to expand our partnership and to support Senegal’s efforts to bring prosperity to its great people.

The August 2014 U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit highlighted Africa’s potential as a new center of global growth that is creating more opportunities for its people than ever before and showed that Africa’s economic transformation is underway.

Senegal, which was President Obama’s first stop on his Africa trip, is central to that transformation, and we are delighted to count President Sall as a partner in building on that momentum.

We fully support his Plan Sénégal Emergent and other objectives, and stand ready to support Senegal’s economic reforms, infrastructural development, and other efforts to attract private sector investment.

The Government of Senegal has already taken steps towards improving governance and transparency, including through economic reforms and audits of government procurement. It is developing a Special Economic Zone to help foster more private investment. And Senegal’s rank in the World Banks’s Doing Business rating is on the rise.

But as President Sall has acknowledged, Senegal also faces many challenges, from reducing barriers to trade and investment to promoting entrepreneurship; and from combating illicit finance to offsetting the costs and difficulties of doing business. There are also more tangible issues, such as developing energy resources and building infrastructure.

Ultimately, they’re all connected, since it’s hard to do business, if there’s no energy or electricity. And if you’re a farmer, it’s hard to take your produce to market if there are no reliable roads. That’s why, for example, through the MCC Compact, we have helped rehabilitate highways in the Senegal River Valley and the Casamance region of southern Senegal.

Today, I would like to highlight some of the ways that our economic engagement in Africa is supporting Senegal’s efforts to build business friendly environments, create jobs and bring greater prosperity, which are among the core objectives of the Plan Sénégal Emergent – or PSE.

Before I do that, I’d like to share a brief story about a Senegalese entrepreneur. Too often, we get up here and talk about the programs and initiatives we are doing, and we can sometimes lose sight of that fact that – ultimately – economics is about people.

A young Senegalese entrepreneur named Mame Khary Diene recently spoke about her difficulties building a business that produces natural beauty products for export to the U.S. market. She encountered many challenges, from ensuring consistent production and quality control of her products, to identifying distribution and sales channels in the U.S. It was hard to secure financing and buy machinery to begin producing new products. And once she was operating, she needed to ensure a reliable supply of raw materials.

But being resourceful, she developed relationships with women-run cooperatives in the Kedougou region that provide shea butter and other ingredients that go into her products.

She also had problems accessing and understanding the U.S. market, including identifying sales channels and buyers; and arranging for shipment and warehousing of products.

In the end, she was successful. But I share this story to underscore how important it is to build a business climate that supports entrepreneurs instead of burying them under a cumulative effect of procedures and costs that can stifle entrepreneurship.

After all, as I said recently at a conference in Abuja, small to medium businesses – or SMEs – are the predominant engines of prosperity in almost every economy. It follows that what’s good for them is also good for their economies.

Making sure the Mame Khary’s of this world can do what they do best – innovate, and compete fairly in the marketplace, without red tape, poor infrastructure or other constraints – is absolutely central to President Obama’s economic agenda.

One of those constraints is energy which is not only the biggest area of U.S. commercial engagement with Senegal, but widely perceived to be Senegal’s biggest challenge for businesses. The reasons for this are clear enough: High energy costs undermine competitiveness, while high energy subsidies divert scarce resources from more productive investments.

Of course, this problem is not exclusive to Senegal. Currently in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 600 million people lack access to electricity. That’s why, in 2013, President Obama announced the launching of Power Africa, a private sector-led initiative aimed at doubling electricity access across the continent south of the Sahara. Last summer, at the first U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, which President Sall attended, he pledged an additional $300 million in government assistance per year, and a further $6 billion in private sector commitments, bringing the total private sector commitments to more than $20 billion.

As part of that expansion, we have placed a regional Power Africa transaction advisor in the World Bank office in Dakar. This advisor will help Senegal address bottlenecks to private investment and coordinate efforts among various U.S. government agencies to advance investment projects.

One of these agencies, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation – better known as OPIC – is already working to support two major power projects that will increase energy supply by roughly 40 percent of its current levels.

There are many other examples where we are working with the Government of Senegal to improve the environment for trade and investment.

I’ll mention just a few: With Senegal’s decision to become one of five new Trade Africa partners, we are now able to provide technical assistance to help would-be exporters and importers increase trade. And we are partners with President Sall in the fight against illicit financing, which can undercut the economy in so many ways.

We’re particularly excited about the 10-year renewal of the African Growth and Opportunities Act – or AGOA – which signals a new decade of American investment in African countries such as Senegal. We will be working hard to help investors take advantage of the long-term incentives of investing in Africa.

As the Senegalese musician Youssou Ndour sang in one of his songs: “We have one thing in common: we believe in work. I believe in you and I know that the future belongs to you.”

In a world where economic globalization has become the new reality, the future truly belongs to Africa, which has the fastest growing population of any continent in the world. By 2050, Africans will account for more than a quarter of the world’s labor force – larger than workers from China or India.

Generating jobs for young Africans isn’t an incentive. It’s an imperative. There is no choice but to move forward and succeed, especially in Senegal, where more than 40 percent of the Senegalese people are currently under 15, and last year, only 14 percent of young Senegalese were employed.

The stakes are high but so is Senegal’s potential. I saw that earlier today at a lunch meeting with an impressive group of young Senegalese leaders who had participated in President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya and the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program.

As I listened to their stories, their achievements and the timely questions they asked, I could see and hear the creativity and dynamism of the private sector that can drive economic growth. And I was filled with optimism for the future of Senegal.

We want to offer more opportunities for such young leaders – that is why, in Nairobi, President Obama announced the opening of a Regional Leadership Center here in Dakar before the end of 2015.

My father would have been proud to attend this event and witness this exciting new chapter in Senegal’s story. I’m prouder still because I firmly believe that, by working together, and supporting Senegal on the promising course it has set, we can watch futures grow as broadly as the baobab trees that impressed me so much as a child.

Thank you.