Black American businesses increasingly are forging commercial links with West Africa in enterprises dealing with everything from gold mines to housing to financial planning to record production. ``We're missing the boat on doing business with your country and with Africa,'' commented Balozi Harvey, director of the Harlem Third World Trade Institute at a recent luncheon he organized for the Ivoirians and 15 entrepreneurs and business leaders.
``C^ote d'Ivoire and other African countries have concentrated on France, not on America,'' Mr. Harvey said. ``And we Afro-Americans should have even more of a commitment to you. Because Pan-Africanism is at its height in the world now. Everyone can sympathize with each other's strengths, whether we sit here on 125th Street, in Abidjan, Dakar, or Soweto.''
Frank Denkins, who owns a chain of dry cleaning stores in southern California, has been one of the prime movers in the Los Angeles-based US-Ivoirian business network.
``C^ote d'Ivoire is stable and inviting, and has encouraged us more than any other African country,'' he told the delegation in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles-based New Horizon Export Trading Company, which sells agricultural equipment for development, will open its first distributorship in Abidjan on July 4. L&W Construction is going back in June to arrange for its first low-cost housing projects to go up.
According to Bill Raphael, who runs the Los Angeles Mayor's Office Small Business Administration and is helping to coordinate the network there: ``The biggest problem these companies find is not economic but linguistic. Our members don't speak French, or at least not sufficiently for writing legal documents. Having things translated is time consuming.'' Besides, he adds, ``The distance makes things difficult - it's not like dealing with New York or Washington. But these problems don't prevent anyone from doing business in that country.''
Mr. Raphael says Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley is ``looking at setting up C^ote d'Ivoire as a trading partner and for business and cultural exchange.''
Star-Kist Tuna of Inglewood, Calif., runs a cold storage plant in Abidjan. It intends to set up a processing facility that Star Kist would own with Ivoirian partners. The barriers it finds are prices.
As vice-president Ed Ryan says: ``C^ote d'Ivoire has French-related expenses - expenses for food stuffs, housing, cost of living, everything. But it's a favorable climate and it's efficient. Everything works. You can get your business done. Maybe it's the cost of doing business in C^ote d'Ivoire.''
As a matter of fact, food costs nearly as much in Abijan as it does in Paris or New York. A bag of potatoes costs $2.65 and a 500 gram box of salt costs $1 - and this from a predominantly agricultural economy in which three agricultural products account for 75 percent of the country's export earnings (coffee, cocoa, and tropical woods).
Out of the New York business network, the Harlem Urban Development Corporation planned to send a representative to buy Ivoirian crafts to be sold in a large Harlem open-air market. ``We had space in the market and wanted to make it exciting, very much Harlem and third world,'' says program director Sissy Williams.
Financial consultant Cecil Mead of the Triangular Trading Company plans to open a gold mine but has encountered foreign exchange problems. His project remains at the talking stage.
On the other hand, Robert Kool of the rock group Kool & the Gang was just appointed by President Houphou"et-Boigny as a ``roving ambassador'' for tourism in the Ivory Coast. He has plans to settle in the Ivory Coast and to establish several commercial operations there, including a recording studio and rock concerts, for which he'll invite his artist friends such as Stevie Wonder and Lionel Ritchie.
Black businesses that are solidifying the new trade relations with their African partners may serve as the model for future American-African business ventures. The newly emerging American-Ivoirian business relationship is more than welcome on the Ivoirian side, too.
``We want you to know that C^ote d'Ivoire is no longer the chasse gard'ee [private hunting reserve] of France,'' remarked Ivoirian Congressman Boniface Gotta at a meeting with the US Department of Commerce.
``The message is that we need to help cultivate their economy,'' Mr. Denkins says. ``We feel that Africans will trust black businesses and will seek them out.'' Nor does he mince words. ``I think we should take this rightful stand to support Africa. We're the ones that can contribute the most, and we should work hard to try to develop this.''