The focus of President Obama’s trip to Africa this weekend is evidence of how much the Western narrative about the continent has changed. Two previous presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, sought to help Africa, one in tackling HIV/AIDS, the other in opening American markets to African goods. Mr. Obama, by contrast, plans to ask Africans to help themselves by creating more “social entrepreneurs.”
Obama will be visiting only Kenya and Ethiopia. Yet each is the base for two Africa-wide trends. In Ethiopia, he will give a speech at the headquarters of the 54-nation African Union, the main body trying to lift the standards of governance among its members. But the White House appears more focused on Kenya, which is Africa’s center of innovation and host to a global “summit” of entrepreneurs.
The gathering in Nairobi is a challenge to old notions of top-down foreign assistance to Africa. New technologies, such as smartphones, as well as new ways of providing seed capital, have led to a rise in individual start-ups in Africa. These are helping drive economic growth but are also meeting basic social needs.
Africa’s entrepreneurs look to the United States mainly for opportunities to network with innovators and venture capitalists – as equal partners, not as recipients of largess. The Kenya summit is designed mainly as a place to make deals, or at least exchange ideas and calling cards.
Kenya, which is trying to be Africa’s Silicon Valley, is a natural place for the summit. (It is also the ancestral home of Obama’s father.) If the US has a strategic stake in promoting entrepreneurship in Africa, it is to counter China’s model of development, which largely consists of exploiting Africa’s abundant mineral resources.
As Obama said at a White House event on entrepreneurship this past May, “Entrepreneurship breaks down barriers between cultures and between faiths at a time when we need more than ever the capacity to understand and work across borders.”
This spirit of equality with Africa, as capable collaborators in starting new businesses, can embolden Africans to look to their inner resources for progress. Obama’s visit itself sends such a message. If the son of an African immigrant can become the US president, what can Africans not do?