ABUJA, Nigeria—More than 250 Nigerian government officials, business executives, and other stakeholders officially launched the West Africa Trade and Investment Hub, which seeks to bolster trade, employment, and innovation in key sectors.
The U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Mary Beth Leonard kicked off the Jan. 28 launch by highlighting the Trade Hub’s commitment to forging partnerships with West Africa’s private sector and creating 40,000 new, sustainable jobs in West Africa.
“These partnerships support Nigeria’s efforts to expand its economy, with a focus on non-oil sectors with high growth potential, notably the agriculture sector,” she told the audience.
Building the agriculture industry’s productivity and resiliency are among the issues the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded project aims to tackle. With its doors now formally open, the Trade Hub is a five-year activity, implemented by Creative Associates International and other partners that will attract private finance and investment, build links among businesses and strengthen trade in Nigeria, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger, and other West African countries.
As part of the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative called Feed the Future, the Trade Hub’s partnerships and investments aim to make smallholder farmers more food secure and raise household incomes.
This initiative “is in a sense far more spiritual than economic, it is about the essence of humanity,” said Cross River Governor Ben Ayade at the Trade Hub’s launch. “We need the money and technical support for small-scale farmers. Then they will begin to feel a sense of pride.”
Event attendees included several government ministers, Nigerian governors, and a host of business leaders and entrepreneurs. U.S. Ambassador Leonard was joined by USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator Cheryl L. Anderson and USAID Nigeria Mission Director Stephen M. Haykin.
The energy around the event was palpable as speakers highlighted the immense potential Nigeria, referred to during the ceremony as “the giant of Africa,” has for economic growth and leadership in the region. Home to half of West Africa’s population, Nigeria is positioned to transform its economy into an agricultural powerhouse and a world-recognized exporter.
“Nigerian people are smart, receptive and we embrace people. But we need the right motivation, the right atmosphere,” said Mojisola Omisore, a representative from the Nigerian Ministry of Agriculture.
Not aid but partnerships
The West Africa Trade & Investment Hub hopes to foster innovation and to challenge the private sector to meet the demand of international markets while improving its citizens’ livelihoods. As part of Prosper Africa, the U.S. government’s initiative to boost trade among the United States and African countries, the Trade Hub will administer $60 million in co-investment grant funds and expects to attract a projected $300 million in new private sector investments.
“The private sector is the single most powerful force in lifting up lives,” Creative’s President and CEO Leland Kruvant told attendees. “Prosper Africa represents a new and innovative framework that seeks to liberate and mobilize the talents and capabilities of Africa’s private sector.”
Co-investments and partnerships are the mechanisms for creating lasting economic growth and prosperity in the region. Building on existing relationships and forging new ones, the Trade Hub’s partnerships are intended in part to “reduce Nigeria’s dependence on staple crops like rice and other agricultural goods,” said Anderson. In addition to the agriculture sector, the Trade Hub’s partnerships will target deals in the apparel, aquaculture, and service industries.
Cross River Governor Ayade echoed Kruvant’s comments and added: “For once we have a country giving us partnership, not aid.”
Cross River is one of seven Nigerian states targeted by the Trade Hub. The others are Benue, Delta, Ebonyi, Kaduna, Kebbi, and Niger.
“Agriculture is the new oil”
Senator Ina Etang, one of the Nigerian government officials at the launch, addressed the audience with these words: “Agriculture is the new oil.”
This pithy statement encapsulates the potential for growth in the agriculture sector in West Africa, particularly Nigeria.
The Trade Hub’s activities will primarily target the maize, soy, cowpea, rice, and aquaculture value chains. Lack of access to capital, low productivity, and isolation have prevented small farmers from scaling up and have kept the country primarily reliant on exports to feed its population.
“Only 6 percent [of the profit] goes back to the farmer, so the farmer farms in vain,” said Governor Ayade. “So, we believe that this project will help us to scale up and increase the amount of money that goes into the pocket of the farmer.”
With Africa’s population growing exponentially and its production capacity threatened by environmental pressures, food security is a major goal of the Trade Hub. Connecting these smallholder farmers to firms that can help them grow sustainably and investing in their productivity is a critical piece of the puzzle. Recognizing that innovation will be critical in helping these producers grow, the Trade Hub will also offer research and development grants for new agricultural technologies, and work to transform all levels of production and distribution.
“If we don’t unlock capital we will be in trouble,” said attendee Ayodeji Balogun, CEO of AFEX Commodities Exchange. “Partners like Trade Hub will help catalyze growth.”
Promoting sustainable economic inclusion
Nearly every presenter at the launch highlighted the Trade Hub’s explicit commitment to working with women entrepreneurs in West Africa and addressing the gender-specific, cultural barriers they face when entering the market. Of the 40,000 new jobs, the Trade Hub aims to create through its partnerships and investments in the region, at least half will be for women.
“We are committed and count on all of you to ensure that women and youth are fully engaged,” said Anderson, the Deputy Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Africa Bureau.
The Nigerian Minister of Women’s Affairs and Social Development, Dame Pauline Tallen, said that investing in women “is investing in the community, the nation, and the world.”
“I want to change the narrative and improve the lives of women and children,” she told the audience.
Women still face skepticism when doing business in the private sector and cultural barriers often deny them the chance to participate in both national and international markets. Access to capital is a major obstacle for economic growth in the region, and this is exaggerated when women seek loans for their initiatives, no matter how viable they may be.
The Trade Hub aims to elevate women’s place in the formal economy.
Michael Clements, the Chief of Party of the Trade Hub, emphasized that the five-year project’s return on investment is its “social and environmental impact.” Empowering women is the key to achieving sustainable economic growth and the cornerstone of the social impact the Trade Hub hopes to catalyze, he said.
Hitting the ground running
Though the Trade Hub formally launched at the Jan. 28 event, the program has been operational since September 2019 and there are already 125 grant applicants in the pipeline. Of the 58 Nigerian applicants, 30 are agribusinesses. The value of the applications designated as pre-qualified leads is estimated at $200 million, a promising indicator of the quality to come, the Trade Hub’s Clements said.
With this momentum and the optimism cultivated at the launch, the Trade Hub is set to support West Africa’s private sector as it harnesses its resources, expands trade with the U.S., and improves the livelihoods of everyone from the village farmer to the agribusiness entrepreneur.
“This isn’t just about profits,” said Clements. “It’s about our responsibility to the next generation.”
With reporting by Blessing Lass in Abuja.