By Jeff Mason and Edith Honan
US President Barack Obama told African entrepreneurs in Kenya on Saturday they could help counter violent ideologies and drive growth in Africa, and said governments had to assist by ensuring the rule of law was upheld and by tackling corruption.
Obama was addressing a Global Entrepreneurship Summit at the start of the first visit by a serving US president to Kenya, his father’s homeland and the biggest economy in east Africa, which has suffered attacks by Somali Islamist group al Shabaab.
Security was expected to top talks with President Uhuru Kenyatta at State House, where Obama received his official welcome with a gun salute. Kenyatta called the United States a “very strong supporter of Kenya” before closed discussions.
The talks at State House were attended by Deputy President William Ruto, who is facing charges at the International Criminal Court that he fomented ethnic killings after Kenya’s disputed 2007 election. He denies the charges. Kenyatta had faced similar charges, but the charges have since been dropped.
Obama is keen to boost business ties with Africa, where China overtook the United States as the continent’s biggest trade partner in 2009.
“Africa is on the move. Africa is one of the fastest growing regions in the world,” Obama told the conference, where he was greeted by applause when he began with the words “Jambo”, the Swahili for “hello”. “It is wonderful to be back in Kenya.
“Entrepreneurship offers a positive alternative to the ideologies of violence and division that can all too often fill the void when young people don’t see a future for themselves.”
He said government had a vital role on issues such as establishing the rule of law and curbing corruption, citing two issues often cited by businesses as major obstacles. He said more had to be done to help new firms secure capital.
“OPEN FOR BUSINESS”
An array of technology and other companies have started up in recent years in Africa in a bid to shift the continent away from a traditional focus of commodity exports, but entrepreneurs often complain they cannot find affordable capital.
“Africa is open for business,” Kenyatta said in his speech to open the entrepreneurship conference. “It is the time for a new generation of Africans to promote inclusive prosperity.”
Kenya’s economy is expected to grow by about 6 percent this year. The economy of Ethiopia, Obama’s next stop, is forecast to expand by more than 10 percent, although right groups say Addis Ababa’s economic achievements are at the expense of free speech.
The annual US-sponsored conference was being held for the first time in sub-Saharan Africa at a UN compound in Nairobi.
After attending the conference, Obama laid a wreath to victims of the 1998 bombing by Islamist militants of the US Embassy. The site of the attack in central Nairobi is now a memorial park. The new mission is further from the centre.
On arrival in Kenya on Friday, Obama had dinner with relatives at the central Nairobi hotel where he is staying.
Some Africans complain that Obama, whose father is buried in western Kenya, has not paid enough attention to the continent in his presidency. Obama has sought to change that perception, in part by hosting African leaders in Washington last year.
One of Obama’s initiatives, launched in 2013, was to boost electricity supplies across a continent where many are not on the grid. The goal is to add 30,000 megawatts (MW) of capacity. Deals to add 4,100 MW have been agreed so far, the White House said.