If there is any doubt that Africa and its people are hot topics in U.S. business circles, two recent developments should put those doubts to rest.
On May 19, The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched an Africa Business Initiative “to help bridge the gap between U.S. business and Africa.” The mission of this initiative, a first for the Washington, D.C.-based chamber, “is to engage the U.S. business community on policies that secure investment in Africa, facilitate trade between the United States and African countries, and introduce the U.S. business community to the continent’s vast economic opportunities,” the chamber says.
The chamber further announced that the initiative had joined with a prominent South African firm, Baird’s Communications Management Consultants, to produce The Conversation Behind Closed Doors, a two-part look at corporate and government attitudes toward investment in Africa. Part one is a 16-page inside-the-boardroom survey of attitudes toward corporate investment in Africa among leading U.S. corporations.
The information, gathered during a series of closed-door interviews in 2008 with senior executives of Fortune 100 companies, confirms that U.S. businesses are keenly interested in engagement with and investment in African nations, Chamber officials said. “What this survey reveals is that U.S.-multinational corporations are seriously interested in investing in Africa and employing its people,” says Myron Brilliant, the chamber’s senior vice president of international affairs. “But the biggest obstacles to economic engagement are the unknown and perceived risks. The ABI’s job is to help companies mitigate these risks through advocacy and access and to identify the great investment opportunities that exist across the continent.”
Part two, a survey of attitudes in the public sector, is still in the works.
In April, another group, the U.S. Africa Chamber of Commerce, presented to the 5th Annual Multicultural Marketing Midwest Conference in Minneapolis, the findings of an unprecedented study of the more than 1.4 million immigrant African consumers in the United States. Commissioned by chamber president Martin Mohammed, The U.S. African Consumer Segment focuses on the emerging African market in the United States and its estimated $50 billion purchasing power. Researchers surveyed immigrants residing in Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. The research was led by David Morse, president and CEO of New American Dimensions L.L.C., a Los Angeles market research and consulting firm, and Bruce Corrie, Ph.D., dean of the College of Business and Organizational Leadership at Concordia University, Saint Paul, Minn.
When I talked to Mohammed on the phone in mid May, he was still reeling from the response to the 55-page groundbreaking study. “Oh my God! The study became not only a national discussion but also an international discussion. It is a great, great accomplishment for the African people — an eye-opener not only for the African community, but for everyone else.” Most important, Mohammed said, the study describes the African contribution to the U.S. economy and confirms the emergence of a consumer segment within the African community with substantial purchasing power. The most surprising finding, he said, is the fact that the immigrant African community surpasses the Asian community in terms of higher education. “You can see that a good chunk of them have MBAs, almost everyone graduated from high school and there’s a high motivation for them to succeed.”
The study reveals key characteristics for marketers, such as the shopping habits, brand selection criteria, financial planning and investment patterns and ownership of electronic products in the immigrant African community. For example, most of these immigrants, the study shows, own a personal computer (85 percent) and a DVD player (80 percent); 73 percent have access to the Internet; 59 percent have cable TV; 32 percent own a video-game system; 42 percent have multiple telephone lines; 96 percent own cell phones; 66 percent a digital camera; and 59 percent a laptop or notebook computer.
There are troubling findings about relations with and perceptions about African-Americans (79 percent of respondents identify themselves as African and 50 percent of them strongly agree that Africans are completely different from African-Americans; only 9 percent disagree). The consensus is that racial discrimination is practiced against African immigrants, especially against those who “look African” and speak with a strong accent, by whites and African-Americans alike. The respondents generally expressed difficulty fitting in with African-Americans, despite a strong desire to do so initially.
The bigger picture, however, is all about business.