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Talking travel trade in the wake of Obama's visit

by Claire Allison on Tuesday, 02 July 2013

In a recent seminal book on global economic progress, author Matt Ridley wrote, “Once two individuals find ways to divide labour between them, both are better off. The future for Africa lies in trade.” United States President Barack Obama believes that trade and partnership is what Africa needs right now. 

On his week-long trip to the continent, Mr Obama said at a news conference with President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, “We are looking at a new model that’s based not just on aid and assistance but trade and partnership. Ultimately the goal here is for Africa to build Africa for Africans. Our job is to be a partner in that process.”

Trade is the essential element of human advancement, cooperation, collaboration, discovery and prosperity. Trading is what makes entrepreneurs, what drives the wheels of society, what creates jobs and gives people a purpose in life. Trade is where people find one another, what connects and liberates them from isolation.

Local non-profit organisation Open Africa has been encouraging trade in rural areas for almost 20 years. Established in 1995 under the patronage of Nelson Mandela, Open Africa boosts trade to off-the-beaten-track areas to assist rural entrepreneurs in increasing their income and potential to employ more people, by building their capacity to trade.  It does this by using tourism, one of the most obvious economic platforms for a continent abundant in natural beauty, and connects them to traveller markets. This is the essence of responsible tourism.

Connecting small and emerging businesses to markets within a framework that has many side benefits, beyond the main goal of promoting trade in remote areas, focuses on indigenous strengths that build confidence, restore pride, encourage transformation, create awareness of the financial benefits of conservation, counteract urbanisation, and celebrate culture and heritage.

Trade between the United States and Africa has more than doubled over the past decade. Mr Obama announced from Dar es Salaam that his new commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker, would lead what he called a “major trade initiative” to Africa in her first year.

Economic growth for sub-Saharan Africa was an impressive 5.1% last year, according to the International Monetary Fund, which predicts growth of 5.4% for 2013 and 5.7% for 2014. These predictions are both well above expectations for the United States economy.

Yet extreme poverty, 80% of which occurs in rural areas in Africa, continues to be an enormous problem. The way its ravages cause people to over-graze their lands, slash and burn forests, encroach on wilderness and poach biodiversity could destroy the very asset Africa’s trading platform is based upon. Translating the continent’s biodiversity into a wealth creator, inspiring its protection as an asset and tourist attraction and encouraging trade, and subsequent economic growth to pristine areas is an obvious solution.

“Convincing local communities of this can be challenging but once they understand the importance of conserving this, the potential for tourism in the area and the demand for it by the aspiring entrepreneurs becomes overwhelming,” says Open Africa General Manager, Francois Viljoen.

In a survey conducted in January 2013 by Open Africa, results showed on average there has been a 128% increase over 18 months in the number of people employed by rural tourism entrepreneurs, following extensive support.  It also revealed that the number of participating enterprises with turnovers below R50,000 reduced by 42%, while participants with turnovers over R50,000 increased by 20% between 2011 and 2013. This survey shows the direct link between Open Africa’s work and employment opportunities and income increases.

As Matt Ridley says, “Give local people the power to own, exploit and profit from natural resources in a sustainable way and they will usually preserve and cherish those resources.” When it comes to encouraging trade in Africa, both travel and Open Africa fit the bill!

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