Antony J. Blinken Remarks At a Reception for African Innovators as Part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit

State Department Seal


Office of the Spokesperson

December 12, 2022 Benjamin Franklin Room

Washington, D.C.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good evening, everyone.  So I am here to tell you that we have another 10 speakers, and so we can – (laughter).

We are so thrilled to have you here at the State Department.

Now, I have not heard or seen this room this animated in the two years that I’ve been here.  So there’s something in the water.  (Applause.)

By the way, you’re in the Ben Franklin Room.  You can see Ben looking down on us over there.  He was America’s very first diplomat.  He signed our first treaty.  He charted the Gulf Stream.  He pioneered electricity.  He gave us our ethos of self-government.  And none of this did he do while sober.  (Laughter.)  So please feel inspired.  (Applause.)

Let me begin by thanking our extraordinary emcee for this evening, Yvonne Orji.  Yvonne, thank you.  (Applause.)  Nothing makes you more insecure – (laughter) – than having to follow Yvonne on stage.

Yvonne once wrote that, “Nigeria made me.  America raised me.”  We often say that one of America’s greatest strengths is our diversity – there are few greater testaments to that than the immense contributions of the African diaspora community, which is clearly out in force tonight.  It is great to have you here.

There are so many other folks here I’d like to thank this evening: Dorothy McAuliffe and our incredible Office of Global Partnerships; the entire Prosper Africa Initiative team; our co-sponsors – Tony, thank you so much for everything you’ve done; Google, James; an incredible cast of friends, partners.

Now, I’m a native New Yorker.  So my mayor is here.  (Applause.)  I don’t know if Mayor Bowser is here.  I don’t know – from Washington.  But I’ve also spent a lot of time as a resident of the District of Columbia – another great mayor.  Mayor Bowser, I think, was with us tonight.  And I really want to thank the judges of our pitch competition, including Idris Elba.  Idris, you here?  You’re here somewhere – was here.

And to the remarkable competitors, know this: if you can survive a pitch competition with Stringer Bell, you can survive anything.  (Laughter.)

So it is fitting that we are kicking off a week focused on deepening our ties with African countries and people with this inspiring group – innovators, entrepreneurs, young people.

Earlier this year in South Africa, I had an opportunity to set out our administration’s strategy for the region.  And at its core, the strategy can be distilled in one word.  You’ve already heard it spoken tonight: partnership.

It’s rooted in the recognition that the United States and African nations can’t deliver on any of our fundamental needs and aspirations for our people, and we can’t solve any of the really big challenges we face, if we don’t work together.  So it’s about what we can do with African nations and people – not for them.

Our strategy reflects the region’s diversity, its influence, and – as we can see tonight – the ingenuity of its young people.

You all know this.  Those youth are a growing part of the continent’s population – and also the world’s.  Today, more than 60 percent of Africa’s population is under the age of 25.  By 2030, two in every five people on this planet will be African.  These rising generations are powering dynamic economic growth in their countries and far beyond.  2016 – just a few years ago – African startups raised $350 million dollars in investment; last year, they raised $5 billion in investment – and that’s a curve that’s going to keep going up and up and up.  (Applause.)

Now, it’s one thing to rattle off statistics; it’s another thing to meet these changemakers, as I’ve had the chance to do as Secretary, from Dakar to Johannesburg, from Nairobi to Kinshasa.

Much like the founders who took part in tonight’s pitch competition, these entrepreneurs are not just running successful businesses.  They’re actually solving some of our most vexing problems, like closing enduring gaps in health care, helping entrepreneurs break into the formal economy.

We have a huge stake in the success of African innovators.  Because when they are empowered to reach their full potential – it’s good for the region, it’s good for the continent, it’s good for the world, it’s good for America.

Idris said it best:  Africa doesn’t need aid, it needs innovation.

So tonight, let me just very quickly go through three ways our administration is working to broaden and deepen those partnerships to foster African innovation.

First, we’re investing in the infrastructure that provides the foundation for African entrepreneurship.  That means creating more pathways for the free flow of ideas, of information, of investment, which in the 21st century requires one thing: digital connectivity.

Let me give you one example.  Africa has around twice as many internet users as the United States, yet the continent has only a fraction of our data center space.  What does that mean?  Slower, less reliable connectivity.  That’s why our U.S. Development Finance Corporation is investing $300 million in building data centers across the continent – because we need networks that can keep up with the lightning pace of new ideas.

Second, we’re investing in rising leaders.  Since President Obama created the Young African Leaders Initiative, nearly 5,800 trailblazers from every country in Sub-Saharan Africa have come to the United States for academic and leadership training – developing skills, relationships that are going to last them a lifetime, to the benefit of their communities but also ours.

Many of the Mandela Washington Fellows are entrepreneurs, including alum Abel Hailegiorgis from Ethiopia, who’s here tonight.  Abel’s company is building bicycles and wheelchairs from bamboo, which is stronger than steel – there you are right there – sustaining our planet, supporting local farmers and local manufacturers.

That’s not all.  In September, the U.S. African Development Foundation teamed up with the Tony Elumelu Foundation to create a new program to provide financing, technical assistance, and mentorship to emerging innovators in Africa.  We recently launched another initiative to connect up-and-coming climate entrepreneurs with American companies.

Third, we are fostering greater engagement by American companies.  You’re going to hear more about that throughout this week.  The U.S. private sector already invests more than $4 in Africa for every dollar that our government allocates to the region in foreign assistance – and it wants to do more.  That’s the objective of our Office of Global Partnerships, which will take a U.S. private sector delegation to Ghana in February.  It’s the goal of the Prosper Africa initiative – which is marshalling agencies from across our government to help more U.S. companies and inventors – investors, excuse me, do business in Africa, and do it in a way that promotes inclusive growth – growth that’s sustainable for our planet.

So tonight we’re joined by Prosper Africa’s institutional investor delegation.  It manages more than a trillion dollars in savings for American workers and retirees.  The delegation recently helped a group U.S. – of U.S. pension funds, including those of teachers from Chicago, city workers from Hartford and Philadelphia, invest more than $85 million in an African fund that will provide financing to small businesses and entrepreneurs.

One more bite-sized example.  Several of the items on the menu prepared tonight by Chef Pierre were made using a grain called fonio.  Farmed primarily in the Sahel, it’s what your mom cooked for you when you were growing up.  (Applause.)  So through a partnership with Prosper Africa, Pierre’s company – Yolélé – is distributing fonio and other products made by small farmers in the region to markets here in the United States – including at the Whole Foods that’s just a few blocks from where we are this evening.  In a region where it’s getting harder to grow crops due to a warming climate, fonio’s deep roots make it virtually drought-resistant.  Now, in West Africa, it’s also said that “Fonio never embarrasses the cook,” which is good news if – like me – you’re no Pierre in the kitchen.  (Laughter.)

So thank you all for being here tonight.  Thank you.  Thank you for helping us kick off an incredible week.  And more importantly, thank you for all you’re doing working with us to deepen America’s partnerships with African nations – partnership that has shaped our past, is shaping our present, and will – will – shape our future.

Have a wonderful evening.  Have a wonderful week.  Thank you all very much.  (Applause.)

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