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Commerce Department Helps Connect Illinois Businesses to Africa

March 19, 2015

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Guest blog post by David P. Storch is the Chairman & CEO of AAR Corp. He is also a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa.  

During the next decade, Africa’s GDP is projected to rise six percent each year. The Continent is being called the world’s next major economic success story, and this growing and untapped potential includes the aviation market where AAR is a U.S.-based global player.

On Tuesday, I joined U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Industry and Analysis Marcus Jadotte  to host a Doing Business in Africa (DBIA) roundtable in Chicago. This high-level gathering, with a select group of business leaders, was held to generate and share ideas on how the International Trade Administration (ITA) can help U.S. companies, primarily small- and medium-sized businesses, to better connect to, invest in, and export to Africa.

The roundtable brought together more than 30 leaders—from companies that focus on everything from investment capital to technology, and businesses ranging in size from start-ups to multimillion-dollar firms—to discuss the hurdles of conducting business in Africa and to learn how the U.S. government can help reduce those barriers.

According to my fellow business leaders who attended, particularly those from smaller companies, access to financing is a big obstacle to doing business in Africa. In fact, many say the only financing they can get is through the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Getting products across African borders is another challenge to selling products on the Continent. During his remarks, Assistant Secretary Jadotte advised companies interested in learning more about exporting to contact their local U.S. Export Assistance Centers, located in cities across the country.

For the last 30 years, AAR has traded aviation parts with customers in Africa. Recently, we started to focus on longer-term aviation service programs and relationships with businesses on the Continent. Our shift in focus is thanks to the increasing strength of African airlines and the help we received from the Doing Business in Africa (DBIA) campaign, led by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

During the roundtable, we also discussed another challenge to doing business in Africa: the lack of infrastructure. Using the aviation industry as an example, AAR can help African companies and workers gain aircraft maintenance knowledge and skills, but the countries also still need to build the related infrastructure needed for a more robust aviation industry, including runways, terminals, and hangars. Leaders at the roundtable suggested that the need for large capital investment in transportation, utilities, and communication is probably best served by African governments engaging in public-private partnerships.

We also talked about the desire of firms like AAR to partner with local African companies since they know the market better than we ever will. I think U.S. companies’ willingness to invest in Africa and its people also differentiates the United States. As U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said, “when U.S. companies succeed, the benefits are mutually shared in the form of new economic opportunity at home and abroad.”

The key takeaway from Tuesday’s roundtable is that small and mid-sized companies need a better understanding of the resources the U.S. government can provide to help them break into the African market, and how and where to access those resources and tools.

The Obama administration’s support and “tools” were key to enabling AAR to navigate the business landscape and land a five-year, multimillion-dollar contract in 2014 to support Kenya Airways fleet of 737NG aircraft. The advocacy and access AAR gained through the Commerce Department gave us an advantage in the face of stiff competition from European companies, who are typically well supported by their governments.

To continue the conversation, many of the ideas generated at this week’s Chicago roundtable will be included in the recommendations that the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa will present to President Obama in a public forum on April 8 in Washington, D.C.

One comment

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