U.S. in Africa: Playing Catchup to China

WASHINGTON – On the eve of the historic US-Africa Summit here, America’s number one objective on the African continent is to start closing the gap with China.

That was the message from all three speakers at Monday’s CCLP Communication Leadership lunch just a few blocks from the State Department.

“There is no place in Africa where you do not see China,” said Ron Nixon, who has covered several African countries for the New York Times. “They are in every aspect of business. The U.S. is far behind.”

Left to right: Ron Nixon, NY Times; Joan Mower, BBG; and Mwamoyo Hamza, Chief, VOA Swahili Service

Mwamoyo Hamza, head of the Voice of America’s Swahili Service, identified a fundamental difference between American and Chinese initiatives in Africa: the U.S. still thinks of Africa as a destination for foreign aid, but for China, it is all business.

“It is no longer an aid relationship,” Hamza said. “It should be a business relationship.”

In international broadcasting, China also has grown rapidly.

“They are outspending us,” said Joan Mower, head of development for Voice of America. She added that, checking into hotels around Africa, she has found they now feature three English-language Chinese channels.

However, the U.S. has moved to dominate on line and mobile media. In just three months, according to Mower, Voice of America’s new Hausa language service for cell phones has attracted four million people. And she added that the major growth may be in African languages, rather than English or French.

“People want to listen to news in their own language,” she said.

Hamza also emphasized the role of mobile phones, saying 80% of Africans now use cell phones – and that may be the only way to reach the rapidly growing millions of younger Africans.

“People who are tweeting are all young,” he said.

And it is American pop culture and American commercial media that have captured the young. The words Facebook and Internet are used interchangeably, said Hamza, and that is reinforced by default features in African mobile telephones.

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“The Facebook app is right there” when you first start the phone, he said.

(You can read more about the explosive growth of mobile telephones in Africa in my more detailed report, “Bigger Cities, Smaller Screens: Urbanization, Mobile Phones, and Digital Media Trends in Africa”)

But if the U.S. leads in mobile apps, the Beijing’s lead extends across most of the rest of the African commercial landscape.

To start catching up, the White House today announced a new program to “mobilize private capital.” $14 billion in new corporate investment was announced, but it was not immediately clear how much of that is new money, funds which corporations had not already planned to invest.

To see how old funds can be repackaged for new programs, consider how the administration is paying for the Young African Leaders Initiative, or YALI (see CCLP’s previous forum). 500 African leaders were flown to the U.S. and took part in a White House town meeting last week, where President Obama announced the program would double next year.

However, this is not new money: YALI is funded by diverting money from the Fulbright program, a diversion which has provoked strong protests.