Why Africa Matters to Birmingham
October 28, 2020
There’s something special happening in the Magic City. Despite modest trade between Alabama and sub-Saharan Africa’s 49 countries, there is palpable enthusiasm about the opportunities to deepen economic ties. Birmingham’s prominent politicians and business leaders, as well as its academic institutions, are bullish about prospects for greater links with the region. These commercial relationships, buttressed by academic, religious, and personal connections and a vibrant diaspora community, underscore why Africa matters to Birmingham. These aren’t the tired arguments you hear in Washington, D.C. about terrorism, piracy, and humanitarian challenges. Birmingham showcases how the region, its people, and culture enrich the lives of the city’s residents.
Alabama’s trade with Africa is squarely in the middle pack for U.S. states, ranking 21 out of 50 for exports in 2018. And yet, Alabama’s Democratic and Republican leaders have long been excited about the potential for more engagement with the continent at the state and city levels. In 2015, Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield led a trade and development mission to South Africa and Tanzania, extolling South Africa as a “ powerhouse on the continent” and as an emerging market with broad interests from Alabama exporters. Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell shared a similar view when she accompanied President Obama to Kenya, noting how Alabama’s business sector would benefit from stronger ties with East Africa.
These high-level expressions of interest have not only been reciprocated by African counterparts, including diplomats from South Africa and trade delegations from Angola, but from Birmingham businesses stepping up to forge closer ties. It is clear there are ample opportunities to export Alabama-made transportation equipment, machinery, chemicals, pharmaceutical products, and other items to the continent. Birmingham-based B.L. Harbert International, a billion-dollar company with 8,000 employees worldwide, has built U.S. diplomatic and military facilities in 21 African countries. Altec, which supports electric utilities and other sectors, has provided equipment and services across Africa for decades. Biocryst, with roots in Birmingham, has global rights to Galidesivir, an antiviral drug in development to treat Marburg virus disease, Ebola, and yellow fever, all of which plague many African populations.
Birmingham’s economic links are underpinned by strong academic, religious, and personal connections. The University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) is a hub of important research related to Africa. UAB scholars have received large, often multimillion-dollar grants to work on obstetric and gynecological research in Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, South Africa, and Zambia. Many of Birmingham’s citizens have participated in religious missions to the continent, established charities, or spearheaded medical initiatives, including to combat the Covid-19 outbreak. A strong commitment to service has been fundamental to Birmingham’s sister city programs with Winneba and Apaaso, Ghana and Guediawaye, Senegal. Indeed, many of the city’s prominent leaders have personal ties to the region, including Alabama’s former chief justice who is involved in mission projects in Rwanda and Uganda.
Birmingham’s African diaspora is another example of why Africa matters to the city. Birmingham is home to many first- and second-generation Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Kenyans, Liberians, Nigerians, and other nationalities. They are prominent academics, medical professionals, religious leaders, and entrepreneurs, like Shegun Otulana, CEO of the tech start-up success story TheraNest. They also contribute the city’s cultural life, involved in everything from drum circles at the Sahi On Ko Djony West African Cultural Enrichment Program, to UAB’s sports teams and Birmingham Legion FC.
Africa matters to Birmingham in ways too often missed by Washington, D.C.-based foreign policy wonks. The city’s economy is on course to benefit from growing links with the continent, and its residents have made deep connections through their professional and personal ties, as well as a commitment to service and cultural exchanges. As a South African diplomat reflected during a visit to Birmingham last year, “we share similar histories and probably similar destinies.”
Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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