Last month, the world was focused on Syria with much of the buzz focused on Russian president Vladimir Putin challenging President Obama’s reference to American Exceptionalism. The president mentioned this concept during a speech he gave last month at the height of Syria’s alleged chemical warfare crisis. In the midst of his recommendation for a limited military strike, he suggested that Americans are endowed as exceptional, perhaps by a higher being, or by its position in the world as an influential super power and its historical role as a hub for democracy and admirable standards and principles. Meanwhile, an example of American Exceptionalism contribution to Africa can be seen in the Obama administration’s policies in Sub-Sahara Africa.

Recently, all eyes were on Kenya as its police battled an attack made by Somali members of al-Shabab—an Al Qaeda sympathizing terror group—on shoppers in an upscale mall in the East African nation. Before then, much focus was on Egypt and Syria. But Africa has been trying to shake the stereotypical images that many in the Western world have of it being a hub for war-torn conflict, famine, and underdevelopment. The Sub-Saharan region of the massive continent is quite eager to get past stagnation and become more self-sustaining and less dependent on foreign aid and assistance from nongovernmental entities and churches that mission there regularly. Given that President Obama is a son of Africa, with his father being born, raised and dying in Kenya, many Africans were eager to see him spend more time and effort there. But it didn’t happen.

The most time he spent on the continent was 22 hours during a fly over stop in Ghana in 2008. First Lady Michelle Obama sojourned there twice during this first term, though. President Obama was busy focusing on building up a downturn economy and passing an expansive healthcare legislation. He had little opportunity to devote to Africa, not until after securing this second term in office was he able to present his Africa Policy.

This summer, we learned it will focus on promoting broader democracy, government transparency, less corruption and electoral fraud. He’ll also work on getting more nations that make up Sub-Sahara to develop and maintain international standards so that they can rely less on international aid and build up a sustainable middle class.

Over the course of a 7-night diplomatic trip, the president trekked through all economic regions of Sub-Sahara Africa meeting with and addressing various African leaders and groups. The venture is a promising aspect of Obama’s Africa policy, which seems to focus on long-term sustenance, trade, and development initiatives that would position nations in Sub-Sahara Africa to compete globally and be leaders in 21st century growth fields.

During his second term, however, he’s had opportunity to pivot and focus some energy on Africa. The mission this summer, albeit belated in the eyes of some, was a welcome effort.  Indeed, Obama had big shoes to fill as his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton both launched many initiatives and spent lots of money in Africa.

Their efforts were key to reducing the rate of HIV/AIDS , malaria, infant and maternal mortality; and increasing food security and safety. Even the newest prime minister of China visited within a month of taking office. China along with Brazil had invested much in Africa, though mainly to extract precious oil and other natural resources from the mineral rich land mass. Still, in 2012 Brazil’s top investment bank BTG Pactual said it planned to raise $1 billion to create the world’s biggest investment fund for Africa, focusing on areas such as infrastructure, energy and agriculture. Its two most recent prime ministers visited over 25 nations.

Obama did in fact pick up from where Bush left off, but pivoted slightly. His choice to focus on trade is a smart one as it has implications beyond the here and now and could spell good business for the US as well.

Currently, “Africa receives merely 2% of all US exports,” Obama said during remarks at a business leaders forum in Tanzania. US government’s total trade with the entire continent is same as trade with Brazil or South Africa which each have a small fraction of Africa’s population. Taiwan, has 1/38 of Africa’s population yet exported $28 billion to the US, roughly the equivalent of Macy’s annual revenues. To say Africa is underperforming on its potential is an understatement.

“The entire GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa is still less than $2 trillion — which is about the same as Italy,” Obama said at the forum.

From the half a dozen or so speeches and policy positions presented in Africa, it is probably safe to summarize Obama’s Africa policy into three priorities

a) Promoting and helping alleviate Africa’s energy deficiencies which have stymied the continent’s ability to grow to its fullest economic potential;

b) Encouraging and bolstering ongoing trade initiatives with the United States and among nations within regions of the continent; and

c) Helping establish and maintain international standards in trade, the electoral process,

In addition, the US is also helping to combat the $7 to $10 billion annual illegal animal trade that is “decimating the populations for some of Africa’s iconic animals.”

Rhino horns sell on black market for $30,000 a pound and elephant tusks for $1,000 a pound.

The president also announced during his Tanzania trip, that the US State Department would give an additional $10 million in regional and bilateral training and technical aid to combat wildlife trafficking. It tacks on the money already spent in Africa and Asia to counter poaching, train law enforcement officers in wildlife crime investigation, and helps build more wild life conservation.

Energy is Africa’s Future

The most pronounced visual imagery in news reports from of the trip was that of the president bouncing a soccer ball on his head. Only it wasn’t just for fun and games.

After showing off his skills, he was able to use the kinetic energy created from the ball bouncing around to power up a phone. A Kenyan-American woman invented the ball, called a “Sokket” ball as part of Uncharted Play, a nine-person New York City-based not-for-profit organization that is working to bring electricity into rural communities like those found in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The ball could also be used to light up a lamp to read at night.

That exhibit was an example of the type of innovation that could ease Africa’s energy problem and possibly help it leapfrog other nations in future energy creation. The International Energy Agency predicts that Sub-Saharan Africa will require more than $300 billion in investment to achieve universal electricity by 2030.

If Africa were to successfully adopt and implement clean technology to meet the challenges of the billions of inhabitants, it could prove a convincing test case for relatively new technology.  Obama could easily point to successes in Africa’s experimentation with exploiting new renewable energy sources when skeptics here challenge the technology.

US sends food aid to Africa annually but insufficient and archaic power sources make it difficult for rural villages and other areas to get power to generate refrigerators and storage—more than two-thirds of the people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to electricity

Power Africa is a program, targeted toward encouraging and aiding innovation. It will include a $2 million off-grid energy challenge funded by the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF). African-owned and operated enterprises could compete for up to $100,000 to develop or expand the use of proven technologies for off-grid electricity benefitting rural and marginal populations.

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