Voices from American Industry on the AGOA Forum

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on October 30, 2023. Watch the full video here.

Laird Treiber: Good morning. My name is Laird Treiber. I’m a senior non-resident associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. And it’s my pleasure to welcome you to this morning’s program, “Voices from American Industry on the AGOA Forum.”

This topic couldn’t be any more timely, in that companies – U.S. and African – from across the continent are already gathering in Johannesburg, and trade ministers will be meeting through the 2nd through the 4th of November this week. There is already quite a buzz in terms of the importance of AGOA, in terms of deepening U.S.-African trade and investment relations. And a number of companies and ministers have already made strong public statements that they would like to see early renewal of AGOA for another 10 years. So this is – getting this kind of perspective that we’ll get from today in terms of three very important companies is extremely timely.

But before we get to that, we are honored to have with us today Chairman John James, who is the chairman of the African Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to offer his thoughts on these important issues. Chairman James, the floor is yours.

Representative John James (R-MI): Thank you so much. And I want to start by thanking all of you for joining, especially Noam Unger and the Center for Strategic and International Studies for convening this very important conversation on AGOA. I really appreciate those who are joining online to listen and participate. And I apologize for the delay. We were trying to get all the technical things going. You’d think a couple of years after pandemic we’d have this nailed down but, you know, life happens. So I appreciate your patience and looking forward to the next couple of minutes chatting with you.

So we know that after much discussion and some debate, the AGOA Forum will be taking place in South Africa later on this week. So today’s event is all the more important. As the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa, AGO reauthorization is the joint responsibility of my subcommittee with Ways and Means, and actually one of the highest priorities expressed to me by the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman back in January. This is a priority that was listed extremely high. And in please trust and believe that we are putting every effort that we possibly can into making sure that this is reauthorized in a timely manner this Congress.

This, again, is a responsibility that, on top of the need and the duty that we have, to American businesses and our new partners across the ocean. I view with a bit of enjoyment to expand and deepen trade and investment relationships between the United States and African countries as a way to encourage economic growth and regional integration. In fact, AGOA has come up in every single one of the visits that I’ve had with our congressional delegation to the continent, and also when hosting a number of dignitaries from the continent. All are very interested in the concept you’ve heard before – trade not aid, increased development, showing up and occupying the vacuum that’s currently being filled by the Russians and the Chinese interest.

So this is of critical importance not just to the businesses, American businesses now, not just to the West, but I truly believe in global stability moving forward, especially because the continent of Africa is on the front end of a demographic boom. And I don’t think we can possibly understate what’s coming. By 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will be African. Already today the median age in sub-Saharan Africa is 24 years younger than that of Europe. Let that sink in – 24 years younger. That’s more than a generation younger than Europe.

This demographic trend will create an economic boom similar to what we saw in Southeast Asia with the Asian tiger economies and will make Africa an increasingly relevant hub for manufacturing and investment. I mean, not even considering the logistical benefit to Africa, the continent is geographically located within an hour’s flight away from most of the largest economies and have coasts that can access the largest economies in the world quite easily.

Understanding this geographic and demographic great benefits of partnering with Africa, their great preference to do business with America in particular and the West in general, we cannot miss this opportunity. The United States already has a strong basis to improve economic opportunity across the continent and ensure that employment opportunities exist for the 10 million young Africans who are going to be reaching working age every single year from now until 2035 – 10 million – and the opportunities there, but, if not met, could present significant challenges. And you’re seeing a lot of that – a lot of those challenges manifest in some of the unrest happening in the Sahel and also the immigration issues that we’re seeing.

I think that engaging through AGOA as just a tool is a way that we can address and have benefit for American and Western countries, but also address some of the root cause for some of the struggles that many African nations, in a win-win. This is a proven tool. We have to do that, supporting Africa’s economic boom, if we do this correctly, specifically incentivizing greater investment, export-led job creation from African nations to America.

For example, it’s estimated that AGOA’s eligibility provides 30,000 direct and indirect jobs in the South African wine sector alone, the South African wine sector alone. My wife and her friends would be very, very happy to hear that. But there are clear benefits, not just to specific industries in specific countries, in specific sectors alone.

There are clear benefits in my district, in your districts. AGOA helps keep prices low for consumers here in the United States, for which cost of living has skyrocketed over the past three years. In August, I visited an apparel factory in Tanzania that’s a major AGOA utilizer, and I recognize that there’s a direct link between increasing AGOA exports to the United States and keeping costs low here without jeopardizing American jobs. We can do both.

Since AGOA’s enactment in 2000, the total value of all U.S. trade with Africa has risen to nearly 50 billion (dollars). And in 2022, one third of all U.S. imports from Africa utilized AGOA – 33 percent. This is a massively successful program. And we need to make sure that we continue to – we need to continue it, reauthorize it, and make sure that we improve it.

The bipartisan maxim that AGOA was founded on has been proven correct, and further showing that when we work together, great things can happen.

With a background in supply chain myself and as a businessman, I’ve learned a great deal about how together we can maximize the efficiency and utility of AGOA. And the upcoming reauthorization represents an opportunity to fulfill AGOA’s potential.

I’m so glad – and again, thank you for this forum. I’m glad CSIS continues to bring stakeholders together to discuss how reauthorization could consider the inclusion of critical minerals and/or trade in digital services. And among the great many things we could be looking at toward the future is the opportunities for space that we can use, that the cyber world, and leapfrogging into the future could be of great benefit for our allies in Africa and to make sure that America stays in the forefront of space exploration and cyber.

From the critical-minerals side, I’ve spent considerable time and effort this Congress on our bilateral relationship with DRC, where 70 percent of the world’s cobalt is produced, including introducing legislation that calls for strategies to address labor issues and competition with China on this topic and leading a CODEL recently, as I mentioned, on a state visit to Kinshasa in August.

One of the biggest things that we heard is a lot of African nations moving away from extraction, moving away from being used, essentially, without adding value and that is another gray area that AGOA can participate. The refineries and adding value are some ways that we can partner with African nations to boost their economic outlook and also reduce costs in America and also counter our adversaries around the world.

My primary concern as we convene now is also ensuring that AGOA doesn’t fall to the same fate as the Generalized System of Preferences – GSP – program where even a clean reauthorization proved impossible in just 2020. I’m very concerned that the well-being – well intentioned pursuit of an extended AGOA+ might have unintended consequences and effects.

It’s my priority that we don’t let the pursuit of perfection be the enemy of good, and I would recognize a little bit of uneasiness with this Congress in allowing that to happen. There is tremendous bipartisan support for AGOA and there’s tremendous focus on this from the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and I’ve – we’re committed to this because, I mean, even now we’re already hearing of stalled investments in Kenya as a result of policy unpredictability.

So, again, I understand the importance of long-term certainty for business planning as a businessman myself. We can take good times and bad but uncertainty is a killer and so the importance of long-term certainty can’t be overstated.

It’s been made clear to me from you and clear to me the importance that industry both African and American places on reauthorization happening well in advance of September 2025, which is why we’re having the conversation now, which is why the chairman brought this up to me in January of 2023, anticipating that it would take a while.

And so we’re not going to wait for a deadline to hit to begin this work. I hear this message loud and clear and I can say that, again, these conversations are bipartisan, they are enthusiastic, and they are ongoing between Foreign Affairs and Ways and Means. These are conversations that have been an integral part of building momentum in the House and we also have support in the Senate.

I represent the number-one manufacturing district in the country, in the United States of America, and it’s important to me to ensure that AGOA benefits American businesses as well, Americans here at home as well, again, who have been hurt by inflation and ballooning cost of living.

The most important thing that can be done at this stage is to increase awareness amongst my fellow representatives of the value of AGOA and the value that it provides to each of our districts, to the American industry, to the American consumer, strengthening our economy, providing an alternative to Chinese ambition not just on the continent but in America and making sure that we retain our strong partnerships to show the world that there’s great benefit in working with the United States of America.

So I appreciate the opportunity to be here with you all this morning and look forward to keeping the conversation going in the coming months. Please reach out if you have any questions and, again, thank you so much.

Mr. Treiber: Chairman James, thank you so much for a very clear, very powerful statement. Very, very much appreciated, and thank you from CSIS for joining us today.

Rep. James: Absolutely. Thank you so much.

Mr. Treiber: Well, with that very clear set of and, I think, enthusiastic statements in terms of the importance of AGOA, et cetera, we will now move to the second part of our program today, which is actually hearing from representatives from industry about the importance of AGOA as well as the broader U.S.-African trade and investment relationship.

We have with us today three representatives that actually illustrate the breadth and the depth of U.S.-African trade and investment relations. We have Melissa Nelson, who is the general counsel and corporate secretary from SanMar, we have Samuel Gahigi, who is the acting general director of the Rio Tinto project in Guinea, and we have Charles Murito, who is the director of government affairs and public policy for sub-Saharan Africa from Google.

So I think that illustrates, you know, what I meant in terms of just the breadth of the U.S.-African relationship. For the – we have roughly half an hour. And what I would propose to do is we’ll ask three rounds of questions. The first of which I would ask each of you for no more than five minutes, but maybe situate your industry, your company in terms of that broader U.S.-African trade and investment relationship. Tell us why your company and your industry is important, and what role it plays in that broader relationship.

And, Melissa, perhaps we could begin with you, please.

Melissa Nelson: Sure. Thank you so much. Thanks everyone for inviting SanMar here. A little background about what SanMar is. There’s a reason you haven’t heard the name SanMar. And that’s by design. We are a backend apparel manufacturer, sourcer, for light manufacturing in the United States. So we source – we design and source blank product, like this shirt, and then we sell it to our 60,000-plus customers, mostly small and medium sized U.S. companies, who then take our product and embellish it in some way. So my shirt is embroidered with SanMar.

If you go to a charity fun run and you get a t shirt, and the t shirt says, you know, Breast Cancer Awareness Run for 5K, that shirt possibly, likely, came from SanMar originally, and then was sold to our customer, who then did the screen printing and sold it to that charity group. So because everything that we do is really designed to be – to add additional value in the U.S. and then be sold on, the margin of our product is really tight. Because it needs to be able to make money at the SanMar side and our customer side before it gets sold to community groups. And we’re all about uniforming community groups – you know, t-shirts, sweatshirts, you know, lots of different types of basic apparel items.

We started sourcing in Africa in 2010, moving product from China. When you work in China, and you want to source something else, you go down the street and you have a fully mature, developed option, right? You can just go and you have plug and play. When we decided to try working in Africa, it took us a lot longer to get it right. And I think this is one of the pieces that I focus on when I talk to folks on the Hill, is they look at it and say: You’ve had your time, apparel. You know, this is – we gave you all this time, what have you done with it?

And I say, yes, we appreciate the time, but we need more time under the same rules because it’s not a plug and play situation. You are starting from ground zero. And if our company wasn’t a privately – you know, privately owned family company, somebody else might have said, this is too difficult to do, and walked away. We didn’t walk away. We focus on long term. And it’s been a great success. In 2010, we were sourcing 9 million shirts. This year, it’ll be 50 million from four different countries.

We are very much committed to AGOA, committed to our partners that we work with in Africa. But we need AGOA to make it financially possible. And our 60,000-plus U.S. businesses that depend on SanMar to source this product are dependent on us and having this particular trade arrangement.

Mr. Treiber: Melissa, very clear example, a very helpful one.

Sam, I wonder if we might turn to you.

Samuel Gahigi: Thank you, Laird. And thank you for having asked Rio Tinto. And I would like also to thank the congressman for his very insightful comments and observation in terms of how to unlock Africa’s potential.

I think Rio Tinto, as you know, is the second-largest mining company worldwide, present in 35 countries. And, of course, we are part also of the debate on energy transition. We are part of the debate on diversification of value chains. So I think in that context, this conversation is quite useful to us and very important.

We have a strong commitment to decarbonization in Rio Tinto because, by 2030, the objective is to reduce by 50 percent the carbon emissions. And we have invested 7.5 billion U.S. dollar in the next years to reach that objective of 2030, so it’s quite significant.

As you all know, green energy is going to be the focus of the next decades. The demand, for example, of green energy materials was about – around 7 million ton(s) in 2020. It will rise to over 42 million ton(s) by 2050. Only to say that definitely Africa, being – representing 30 percent of the resources of raw materials and critical materials, is a key partner in our development.

I mentioned that we are in 35 countries, including Guinea, where we are developing with – in a larger partnership with other stakeholders, notably a Chinese company, a very significant amount of volume of green iron ore that will be quite critical for the energy transition. But we are also present in South Africa, where the AGOA Forum will take place soon, and Madagascar, to name a few.

So definitely for us this discussion is quite important. We are very much mindful of the efforts and the focus placed on reindustrialization. I think the congressman also touched on that. The IRA, the CHIPS Act actually – are actually quite critical element that we follow closely. And the principle for us is really to see how we can actually play our part.

What we also bring, I think, which is quite important to reflect on what the congressman was saying, that we bring strong ESG credentials and a commitment to local content and local development. So I think when we talk about the issues of child labor and other elements, those are, I would say, critical parts on which groups like Rio Tinto bring some expertise and assurances that ESG standards are going to be respected by – in the countries where we operate.

Maybe I’ll stop here and maybe we can – we can actually discuss a little bit later. But in terms of what the importance for us that AGOA represents, the fact that we can have a policy framework under which we can actually work together with our partners in the continent and, of course, in the U.S. to make sure that we develop new opportunities and new avenues for the future of critical minerals and value chains. Thank you.

Mr. Treiber: Sam, thank you very much. In many ways you are from kind of a pivoting industry, one of great historical importance in Africa but also, as you mentioned, moving towards, you know, the new industrial revolution and renewables, et cetera, is – the future is equally important.

Charles, we’ll turn to you next. There is – certainly, few companies better exemplify what the potential for a future economy would look like. And I’d welcome your thoughts on situating both Google and your industry in terms of the U.S.-African trade relationship.

Charles Murito: Thank you. Thank you so much, Laird, for inviting me and inviting us as Google to be part of this roundtable. We certainly also appreciate your leadership when it comes to convening the conversations around the AGOA renewal and also bringing together a lot of different perspectives from industry.

Google, who I work for, our mission is to really organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. And so for us, when we think about that particular mission, it would not be complete without having Africa at the core of that. And I think the – Chairman James had some really great statistics around this which I’m going to just sort of chime in on a little bit more about.

That’s why we as Google have been operating in Africa for over 16 years, going on 17 years, to really accelerate the digital transformation on the continent. And the data is clear why we need to do this. By 2030, one in five people on Earth will be in Africa. But for me, a really interesting and more poignant statistic that I love to quote is that by 2050 more than a third of the world’s working population will be in Africa.

Also, when you look at the internet, the number of internet users today are about 300 million and looking to grow to 800 million over the next few years. And the median age of those are 20 years old. First time that they’re getting online is on mobile phones.

So you might ask, with all of this enormous potential, what are we doing on the African continent? And there’s a couple of key things that I want to mention that really embody what we’re trying to accomplish on the continent. And it’s really anchored on a simple mission that digital transformation is really going to help accelerate economic growth across the continent.

Because of that, we announced two years ago that we’re going to be investing over a billion dollars in Africa over the next – over a five-year period, really focusing on four key areas, the first one being infrastructure; human capital is the second; technological development; and also working closely with governments to help drive the right policy frameworks that can be able to create an enabling environment that drives digital transformation.

In the area of infrastructure specifically, there’s only 40 percent of Africans who are online. So when we’re thinking about the next sort of 15 to 20 years, when digital transformation is going to be taking even greater root, it’s critical to ensure that we have the right infrastructure in place that can be able to help different people to come online definitely for the first time, but also make a living and a dignified living leveraging the digital transformation.

In the area of human capital, we’re working very closely empowering individuals, businesses, as well as organizations on that digital transformation journey. Since 2017, as Google we’ve trained over 6.4 million Africans on digital skills. But we also want to make sure that we are focused very closely on small and medium-sized businesses, who make up over 90 percent of all businesses in Africa. And it was really great when Michelle [sic; Melissa] was talking about the impact of small and medium-sized businesses in the U.S., in the work that they work on, and the impact that AGOA has on them. So this notion of empowering small and medium-sized businesses is absolutely critical.

We’ve also worked with these businesses to train over 5,000 of them on ways that they can be able to position themselves online and to ensure that they’re able to have the right skill set so that they can reach new customers, i.e., in the U.S. And working with logistical companies, you can really be able to bridge that. And I think that that’s really the core.

And then lastly is ensuring that customers in the U.S. can also be able to benefit from the digital transformation, exactly as congressman was talking about. So on this particular piece, when you have the right policies in place that we’ve been working on which allow for cross-border data flows and the like, you’re able to actually see the benefits of digital jobs being performed in Africa for the benefit of U.S. consumers.

I’ll pause there for now and I’ll elaborate more in the next segment. Thank you.

Mr. Treiber: Super. Thank you very much.

I think we’re certainly delivering on the promise of illustrating the breadth and the depth of U.S. company involvement in terms of U.S.-Africa trade. I think all of you have done a great job of highlighting, in a lot of ways, just the significant changes that are underway as we speak in many of the key industries across the globe.

And I think, as we turn to our next segment, AGOA has now been around for, you know, a solid 23, soon to be 24 years, which, when you think about just the scope of Africa’s development, is really quite a profound amount of time. But there have been a lot of changes during that time period, both in Africa as well as in the United States and in global industries.

And so I think all of you have mentioned some of the key changes that are undergoing – ongoing in your own industries. But perhaps, given all of these changes that have happened globally, AGOA has been the primary tool of U.S. economic engagement with Africa. And so if I could ask you to reflect, as we look toward this week’s AGOA forum, et cetera, to walk us through how important is AGOA for your company, for your industry – and I know several of you have already touched on that – but also maybe to talk through a little bit of what other tools. Are there other tools in the toolkit that ought to be used, et cetera? And so, Melissa, I know you were eloquent on the criticality of, you know, tariff exemptions, et cetera, for your very industry, sensitive sector. But perhaps if you could take a crack – the first crack at the second question.

Ms. Nelson: I think it’s – to us, it’s so tied in together, because if you look at what are opportunities, where can you go, where are employees trained to be able to create sophisticated garments? You would go overseas. You’d go to – you’d go to China. Because, while – even after this time, when you start a project and you’re taking folks who are starting their first factory job, their first time, you know, using new equipment, and previously they had been in an agrarian – you know, that was their experience. So now you’re starting the training from ground zero. The training piece is really – is really important. And really, it comes over time. And it comes by having a company, like SanMar, have the incentive to go into countries and create these opportunities.

And you really have to build on it, because, you know, we started with the most simple T-shirt when we went to Tanzania in 2010. And over time, once you have that community and folks are trained, and they’re getting that particular shirt down, well, now you can add in some more sophisticated, some more challenging products. Those are the higher-margin products. That’s where the real money is. And, you know, for folks there and folks here. So you really want to kind of build up that talent base.

You also need the whole environment of other – you know, of other companies doing something similar, right? So if I’m going to make a jacket and you’re in China, and you need a zipper, you need a pull, you need all those pieces, well, you go down the street. You go upstairs. You go – you know, it’s available everywhere. It’s not available yet in the countries where we are in Africa because we haven’t had enough time. And, really, you know, it’s frustrating to me, can you tell – (laughs) – that people look back and they say, well, you’ve had this for so long. Well, OK, you have to look at the fact that for apparel, at least, when AGO started it was really around the same time that the quota system ended in China.

And so to try and look at those first 10 years, it was almost useless for anybody. I mean, you really had to want to be there, because all of a sudden you had these opportunities to make products. And they were cheaper. And they would come, and they would be done correctly, and you didn’t have to train anybody, and you didn’t have to worry. So you have to take a long-term view. And knowing – not just having the trade piece there, but knowing that everyone is committed to a long-term outlook, that’s how the industry is going to develop the sophistication to really start making – in our industry at least – more sophisticated high-value garments.

Mr. Treiber: Super. Thank you very much.

Sam, if I could turn to you next on the importance of AGOA to your industry.

Mr. Gahigi: I think I really like Melissa’s point on the long-term outlook, because when you look at policy making, I think what’s important is also to have it accompanied with proper measures that actually can accompany the development of local or regional value chains. Which actually is what the congressman was talking about earlier.

Now, if you look at the recent agreement or MOU that was signed between U.S. administration and DRC and Zambia, on battery materials, it’s a very progressive agreement. And I think it’s important to really look at how we can support those types of value chain development, if I may. However, it comes also with the need for resources. And it’s also true to look at Africa, which is the country where you have probably the less capacity of mobilizing domestic resources or regional resources without significant support from external partners.

So some areas, for example, that would be important on mining, development of mining value changes, is actually infrastructure and energy. As we speak, more than half of the African population has no access to energy. So when we talk about transformation, we need to address this.

The Lobito corridor development it’s a very good, also a significant project that I think U.S., EU, and other partners are now supporting and sponsoring because it will unlock the potential for exports to new and other markets than the traditional markets to which the commodities are actually sent.

But I think we also need to look at what would complement the policy dimension of the AGOA with concrete maybe Millennium – the MCC Challenge corporation, how do we actually tap into all the available resources to make sure that there’s consistent support and, as Melissa was saying, a long-term outlook that is supported by proper initiatives.

To us, I think it’s that’s what would create the space and the environment for also supporting investment from the private sector.

Thank you.

Mr. Treiber: Very helpful.

Charles, the same question to you.

Mr. Murito: Thank you, Laird.

So from our perspective I think that AGOA certainly should be renewed and, perhaps either leveraging an annex or something, looking at how do we connect a broader vision of U.S. strategic diplomacy that ensures that we can be able to work very closely with the African market who are working with to create a stable climate for technology, infrastructure, and investments across the board.

As you know, the digital ecosystem, the infrastructure that’s required is incredibly expensive, so enabling an environment that kind of create that long-term investment perspective. For instance, as Google we’ve invested in Equiano, which is our subsea cable that stretches from Portugal all the way down to Cape Town and really touches with landing branches in Togo, in Nigeria, in Namibia, in St. Helena. That’s a huge capital investment. So the ability to ensure that there is that right regulation for the digital ecosystem is important.

Also, ensuring interoperability on issues like privacy and cybersecurity that also guard against discriminatory approaches on tax and data localization is really critical. And that’s why, for us, we’re also keen and supportive of the renewal of AGOA, but really also looking at how do we deliver the next iteration of AGOA that touches on some of these key elements.

And also talking about this is really noting the points that there are some great opportunities that can be able to help drive economic growth for both African countries as well as the U.S. while promoting growth and governance. And we have to remember that, as congressman mentioned, when you think about the economic growth it’s not really just about money in people’s pockets; it’s also really an issue around national security as well as driving what we’ve been saying that’s more important, the element of commercial diplomacy between the U.S. and Africa, which is critical. And we can see opportunities such as the business process outsourcing and having some of those workflows being done in Africa that then benefit U.S. companies, especially as we’re moving into the age of ubiquitous conversation around AI, machine learning, cloud computing.

But all of these things also take time, because when you start off with lower, simpler sort of workflows – sort of similar to what Melissa is talking about on the manufacturing side, you start off with simpler T-shirts and then you move on to more complex details – same thing in the digital environment. You’ll start off with more simpler workflows, but then move on to higher, more complex workflows that can be done on the continent. So the ability to have stable regulation that enables those training and the adoption and skillsets moving forward, as well as skills transfer, is absolutely critical.

So really excited to see AGOA being renewed.

Mr. Treiber: Charles, thank you very much.

We’re getting to our third and final round as well as the end of our time, and so maybe just to ask each of you some, you know, quick thoughts. If you had kind of a magic wand and could suggest, you know, one or two things to the ministers that will be gathering in Johannesburg in just a few days, what are your expectations for the renewal of AGOA? What are your hopes for expanding the U.S.-Africa trade and investment relationship? I think I’ve heard effectively that it’s using all of the tools in the toolbox, so maybe not just AGOA. But what would you like that key set of messages to be? And, Sam, perhaps I’ll – just to change the order, I’ll start with you.

Mr. Gahigi: Thank you, especially because I need to drop down in a few minutes. But I think I’ll be – I’ll be brief, just one message.

When it comes to mining and critical materials, I think what’s important is to really see how we can – the AGOA’s potential to help unlock regional value chains and helping African countries to come together and build some regional entity, because it’s no longer about really having individual countries promoting and pushing for their own, you know, development. And if we – if we want to industrialize Africa around the potential of the mining industry, I think it’s important, really, to think about regional dimensions. That would be my main recommendation.

Thank you.

Mr. Treiber: A very important aspect of all of this. And I think the one thing we haven’t mentioned is that is something that Africa deserves a lot of credit for in terms of the significant achievement in implementing the African Continental Free Trade Area, which in some ways will create the right kind of framework to do this if companies have right framework to then go and make the investments. So very important point.

Charles, maybe just to continue on disrupting the sequence, your thoughts on the top two or three messages you’d like, you know, policymakers to consider.

Mr. Murito: Absolutely. Allow me to share a couple of ideas – actually, three ideas – where a reauthorized AGOA renewal agreement would really have solid digital sort of substantive impact.

The first one is delivering open digital markets by eliminating trade barriers in investment. This really is going to help small and medium-sized businesses really seeking to expand their businesses online. And it really helps them because it removes some of the challenges, especially around things that inhibit competition and that really sort of stop innovation, et cetera.

The second piece is really promoting democratic and liberal digital practices. When you look at this, it’s critical because a modern digital economy can best flourish where it incorporates democratic values across the board, thinking about human rights, as well as commitments to open and competitive markets.

And then, lastly, the ability to promote cross-border data flows, data governance, as well as digital payments. This really is important because when you think about free flow of data, harmonized regulatory frameworks across different borders – exactly as what Sam was talking from a sort of old bricks-and-mortar perspective – that really translates, as well, to digital. African businesses can really be able to expand both locally as well as regionally, and delivering those economic gains across the board.

However, at this particular point, I do have to note that the recent announcement from USTR whereby it’s abandoning some of the elements around digital rules at the WTO isn’t great. We need to really also advocate to ensure that some of the things that are happening and we are advocating for on the continent also the USG is working closely to ensure that that message is being sort of worked again and again also at the D.C. level, and so that there is equity across the board.

Thank you so much, Laird.

Mr. Treiber: Charles, thank you very much.

So, Melissa, your turn on what would your favorite top two or three suggestions for the ministers this week.

Ms. Nelson: I would just emphasize that there is a window of opportunity right now for investment. There is this phenomenal window of opportunity, and every day that goes by we are losing pieces of it because, for my industry in particular, there are so many reasons why, for example, we wouldn’t want to – we’d want a new source of cotton, right? So let’s – you know, you don’t want any cotton – any Uighur China cotton, right? So just – and, again, this is just in the past few years that there’s the opportunity of saying, wow, how do we prove where our cotton is coming from? What are the opportunities to try and start from the very from – from the ground up on a vertical structure?

And there are machines and there are ways that you can, you know, earmark bales. I mean, there’s so much sophisticated technology right now that’s just – it’s blowing up. But you’re not going to get any investment in West Africa, because you don’t know if you’re going to be able to – if it’s going to be affordable, it’s going to make sense. You know, so there’s a period right now, just because the focus on sustainability, the focus on knowing traceability, really understanding all the components of your product.

And because in Africa, where you’re talking about really, you know, very, very young industries, you have, as a company, the opportunity to really build it from the ground up the way that you want everything to be built. You want traceability? We’ll give you traceability, right? I mean, from – you know, this cotton – you know, we’re going to do it on this line. And you have so much opportunity right now. And there’s so much desire to have that type of traceability and to create these vertically integrated products, and the more sophisticated products, and to get out of China.

But no one’s going to invest right now. I mean, you know, we can’t possibly have those conversations until we feel confident that everybody is looking at this as a long-term relationship, and to feel confident that while we’re building this up we are going to get the trade benefits that brought us to the four African countries in the first place.

Mr. Treiber: Super. Well, I thank all of you for, you know, a great conversation and, you know, really, really good discussion. I think, given that we have all of three minutes, I know we had some questions in the chat, and I hope we got to some of those just in terms of how best to use USTR’s positioning and things like that. We could certainly have done – we could go on for another hour, but I think maybe just on offer in the brief time we have left just a little bit of summing up.

I think certainly what I have heard from all three of you, as well as from the chairman, is an immense amount of enthusiasm. And I think this is a critical piece of it, where all of you have talked about immense amounts of opportunities that are – that exist in terms of partnership between American companies and Africa. Again, not just to sell things and, you know, kind of export and forget about it, but to really build partnerships.

I heard some really important – I think all three of you talked about the importance of building on the investments that are already made. And I think all three of you talked about the importance of the progressive nature of, as work gets – as partnerships deepen, the work partnership also gets more complex, the moving up the value chain and the training of human capital becomes more profound, which opens up yet more opportunities, et cetera. And I think that often gets overlooked. There’s kind of a sense that it’s just about tariffs, when in fact all of you have done a good job of highlighting that it’s really about long-term partnerships.

I think I also heard quite a bit about the importance of policy predictability and knowing as early as possible. Melissa, I certainly take your point on every day we’re missing an opportunity not knowing. And it sounds like that’s true for all of you. And I think I also heard significant opportunity to use more of the tools in the toolbox, and/or perhaps to create some new ones. Charles, just to reference your comments on the importance of digital economy, et cetera, I defer to you, but maybe not entirely clear that we have the right tools to get at some of these things in a rapidly evolving industry, et cetera.

But I think that perhaps is the – is maybe the core message, is that renewing AGO, quote/unquote, “early,” or certainly soon, for a long time – let’s say something like 10 years, sounds like a clear priority from industry across, you know, three very diverse sectors. And I think accompanying it with broader programs of support. So I think that’s a pretty clear message. We will do our best to convey that to the AGOA Forum, both the private sector forum as well as to the ministers.

And for all of you who joined us today for the program, thank you for your time, thank the speakers for a great panel. And we look forward to future episodes of this very important set of discussions.

Ms. Nelson: Thanks so much.

Mr. Murito: Thank you, everyone.