Titus Olowokere is the president of the US-Africa Trade Council, a non-profit organisation devoted to the promotion of trade, tourism, and investment opportunities between the United States of America and Africa.
Over the years, the organisation has succeeded in growing the global consciousness of products from Nigeria and other parts of Africa, giving good opportunities to local small and medium-scale producers to sell their produce in the US and markets in other advanced economies of the world.
As a lover of equity and fairness in bilateral trade, Olowokere has spent a greater part of the last five years educating local manufacturers in Nigeria on best practices when thinking of selling to the US market.
At the same time, his organisation has championed the cause of bringing in significant investment into Africa, particularly Nigeria. BusinessDay sat down with the accomplished trade expert and disciple to talk about his organisation, what they are doing for Nigeria, and his expectations for the Ahmed Tinubu administration.
Give us a brief introduction of your organisation and the successes you have achieved since its inception.
My name is Titus Olowokere, and I am the president of the US-Africa Trade Council. Our objective is to facilitate trade opportunities between the US and African countries, in particular Nigeria, because Nigeria has the largest deep base in Africa.
We realise that there has been a gap in effective utilisation of opportunities in Africa, and we realise that there has been a lot of competition in the global market—particularly China and India—which have been key players in the marketing chain.
So, we believe that the opportunities in Africa need to be utilised more effectively beyond the corridors of government, and that is why we come into the picture to collaborate with organisations and individuals to open doors and opportunities for entrepreneurs from Africa to see the bigger market opportunities in the US and to encourage the manufacturers, producers, and investors in the US to look more to Africa as an input to their own economic growth, which in that way becomes a mutual benefit to both sides.
And this is where we come to the picture, and we realise again that trade—you don’t trade with yourself; you trade with others. You get the benefit of foreign exchange, economic improvement, and the whole landscape of mutual benefit. That is why we come to the picture, and that is what we are trying to do. We have done this over the last few years, and we have been able to support a lot of organisations to grow and conquer the US market, which we regard as the largest market in the world.
Again, you also look at the US for what it is—that it is the epicentre of world trade because almost every company that matters in the world has a presence in the US. So if you conquer the US market and have closer trade relations with the US at a non-governmental level, then you have really conquered the world.
Again, can you list some of the successes your organisation has had over the years?
The organisation is the US-Africa Trade Council. We came into existence about nine years ago, and our activities focus on advocacy, matchmaking, project financing facilitation, and helping individuals and entrepreneurs grow their markets and have better access to international markets. Over the years, we have been able to assist a lot of organisations.
There are exporter groups in Nigeria, and we have helped them open marketing operations in the US. Right now, as I am talking to you, we do have some samples of products to help them explore market opportunities.
We don’t charge for these services, but we make sure that the small business owners in Africa, especially Nigeria, have access to grow further internationally.
Recently, we have a catfish nugget producer in Nigeria that we have helped to have presence in a number of US and British stores. Interestingly, two Chinese stores in the US now carry this product. It helps them to make foreign exchange, and what they produce here is completely non-dependent on foreign exchange.
We have also helped two companies in Nigeria, one in Kwara State and the other in Sokoto State, get funding for their projects. One is currently building a brewery in Kwara State, while the other in Sokoto State is a textile company.
Another area we have been able to help others in is on Agoa, to help organisations tap into the benefit of Agoa as it relates to the US market as they can bring products into the US at a lot less price.
Finally, we have been able to provide a lot of education to exporters from Africa, especially Nigeria. But one powerful tool in business is information. If you have the wrong information, it is very likely you are going to fail. So with our presence in the US and the places we have been over the years, we are able to provide advisory services and training programmes to help exporters in Nigeria see the policy regulations, the restrictions on the products they are producing, and the need for compliance with the things they export. So these have been our achievements over the years. We are still working on it, we are still growing, and we believe that the market is open and limitless.
How has your organisation helped to improve local manufacturers’ access to the US market, especially following the high risk of rejection by the US government of Nigerian goods?
There has been an endemic of such corruption (ignorance on the part of Nigerian exporters) in many developing countries, not only in Nigeria. When I say corruption, it is not necessarily in stealing money but even in their product presentation. It is not difficult, but many of them send sub-standard goods to the US market.
Some would send standard goods in the first two shipments, and in the third shipment, they would have some adulterated goods, and the US market is constantly checking for compliance with standards. So over a period of four to five shipments, if three of them, which is 60 percent of them, fall below standard, it triggers the US regulatory system to investigate further and properly ban the product, which is what has happened, like you mentioned a couple of times.
What we are doing anyway is mostly education. Just yesterday, I had a meeting with a couple of exporters, and I stressed enough to them that we cannot short-circuit the US border control policy. You cannot—you might get away with it the first or second time, but by the time they wrap around you, they will really choke you and kick you out.
And if they do, it takes a lot more effort to get you back in the system. So, we have been doing a lot of education as it is, and even the US market needs Nigeria more than Nigeria needs them. Nigeria and many other developing countries have products that the US does not have and that the US needs, which is the essence of trading anyway. We are not depending on them; we both need each other.
In 2022, the US-Nigeria balance of trade totaled US$10.6 billion, according to the Office of the US Trade Department. In that same year, Nigeria exports to the US outpaced the US by US$177 million to close at US$5.4 billion compared to US$5.2 billion. Furthermore, the organisation said that the US import of goods from Nigeria totaled US$4.8 billion in 2022, up 38.9 percent, which is up from US$2.1 billion. Now, what would have been responsible for this shift being the first time in more than a decade that Nigeria is outpacing the US because, until now, trade relations between both countries have always been in favour of the US?
Now, what could be responsible for this shift—is it oil or non-oil exports?
The key driver of this shift in the balance of trade is the growth of the non-oil sector. Before now, when oil was the mainstay of the economy, attention shifted away from the non-oil sector. Everybody focused on oil—oil products, oil services, gas, and other variants of oil production—but since the oil reserves have not been tapped to the fullest, there has been endemic corruption in the oil and gas sector.
The government has, in fairness, put a lot of effort and money into growing the non-oil sector. To grow the export business, the government has been giving a lot of incentives to make it easier for exporters to do what they need to do.
So people now export, as identified, a lot of products in the US and other global markets that they were not initially conscious of. Someone said necessity is the mother of invention. During the time of President Ghandi of India, he ordered that they ban the import of clothing, and he said, “If India cannot make its own clothes, let India go naked.” That created a need to grow the local economy. In the same vein, because we don’t have enough oil to export, the focus has shifted to the non-oil sector. The export of different items unknown to us has grown.
Hibiscus flowers have been exported in large quantities to the US. They process it locally, but they also use it globally to make hibiscus tea, which is known to have some medicinal effects. Also, very common things like shea butter, for instance, have not received so much attention. Cocoa production actually nosedived for several years, and now it is picking up in many areas.
We are still the largest supplier of cassava in the world today, and even in other areas, we have improved significantly in areas where we have not been very active. That has driven more of that shift in the balance of trade.
Would you say that your organisation has played a key role in helping this shift in balance of trade?
It is a collective effort; I will not say that we are singularly responsible for it, but we have played a very active role in opening the US market to a lot of exporters and educating them on what can be done. in identifying pitfalls and avoiding pitfalls in the export process. So yes, we have played a very important role in it, and we are proud that people are stepping up in that regard.
What is your organisation doing to not only sustain this growth but also accelerate it?
We are playing an active role in advocacy within the US to create more and more awareness among big corporations in the US to focus on Africa rather than other continents. We are leveraging with the government to remove barriers of trade with many African countries, and the one that we did recently was identify the wait time for visa applications.
In many countries in Africa, it is a year or even more than a year ahead. So we have written letters to the US Congress. We have also sent copies to the White House and the Secretary of State for them to realise that you cannot show a desire to trade with Africa and allow visas as a barrier to trade, and they have actually responded.
Until recently, you took Cameroon, for instance. The wait time for a visa to Cameroon used to be about six to eight months, but now it is just two weeks.
We don’t take credit for this, but we have played an active role in that paradigm shift. Some other countries, like Nigeria, have not benefited from that, but again, it is on a pro-rata basis, and we believe that over the next few months they will also address that in Nigeria.
So when people apply for visas, they don’t have to wait so long so that they can export their products, and nothing stops them.
We have also helped the US realise not to put any barriers to trade coming from Africa and Nigeria.
In what ways is your organisation partnering with the Tinubu government to connect American companies with the tremendous economic opportunities in Nigeria?
Well, we have already started that with this administration. We are already making roads for the government. One thing is that we are planning to have a trade mission in Nigeria, and in the next few months we are looking at having that trade mission. We are inviting prospective investors to come to Nigeria, meet Tinubu himself, meet other key players in the economy, and identify areas they can invest in here in Nigeria.
Two, we are trying to collaborate with other trade missions and events in Nigeria and partner with them so that we can leverage our experience and network to grow their events and enjoy the benefits of those events.
And right now we are having a mining investment submit—roundtable rather—for April 13 next year, and we are doing that in collaboration with the federal ministry of mining and steel development. Again, this is an area less trodden but with great potential that might even eclipse the earnings from oil exports. But then, not much has been done in this area, but we are planning to make sure to have more visibility in the Nigerian market. So these are the things we are planning for Tinubu’s administration, and we are still looking for more areas to explore and work closely with the government.
It is not about a particular government but about the economic development and prosperity of Nigeria.
Concerning the challenging macroeconomic environment for businesses in Nigeria, especially when you take into perspective the high rate of business failures in the country, how challenging and successful has your organisation been in bringing American companies into Nigeria?
It has been challenging because we don’t have that fantastic global reputation for trade and business ethics. But regardless, most countries have one reputation or another. Regardless, you have to put in effort to’mine your gold from the deposit’.
American companies that have identified opportunities in Nigeria have all been encouraged and are doing their due diligence, looking beyond the perception they have about Nigeria and still doing business with Nigeria. The good thing is that a lot of big corporations—General Electric and Siemens—recently, the largest food chains in the US—Domino Pizza, Burger Kings, MacDonalds, and a couple of others—are making inroads to Nigeria. They follow the money.
Regardless of the challenges we have, the money is in this country. The GDP is an expression of the buying power we have in this country. So if we have such a high GDP, that means whatever you are selling in this country, there is a market for it. People are willing to pay for it.
Thirdly, products from the US have premium value in the Nigerian market, and a lot of Nigerians have the resources to pay for these premium services. So bottom line, we encourage them to follow the money to calculate the cost. put a risk management system in place to deal with those risks without losing track of the opportunities to make money from Nigeria. And many of them are doing that and are still doing so.
Right now, we are talking to Chick Fille, which is the largest and fastest-growing chicken sandwich restaurant in the US. This is a restaurant where, almost every single minute, there are about 20 to 50 cars on the line waiting to order their food. They don’t open on Sundays, and their franchise is so difficult to get because they have very strict compliance requirements. So we are talking to a couple of them to come to Nigeria again—because of the success of Domino Pizza and KFC, we believe we can get more companies to come to Nigeria.
For a Nigerian looking to invest in the US, which sectors do you encourage that individual or that business to invest in?
For Nigerians looking to invest in the US market, there are about three sectors I will personally recommend based on what I have seen and my experience.
One, you can’t go wrong with the real estate market. The real estate market is growing in the US. The homes in many US cities appreciate constantly; in some areas, they appreciate in two-digit growth patterns. You could buy a house now, and in five years, you could realise about 20 percent of your investment.
Another sector to invest in in the US is the hospitality industry. Americans eat out a lot. They eat out, probably 90 percent of the time; they don’t cook. So for those who want to invest in the food and beverage sector in restaurants, with the right location, they can’t go wrong because Americans would eat lunch outside; they would buy lunch on their way and eat dinner at home. Most of the cooking they do is just to warm up the frozen or canned foods. So you can’t go wrong with the food market.
Another area that you can’t go wrong in is the hospitality industry, specifically hotel chains. Americans travel a lot; within the US, they travel a lot, and most hotels are filled up. They have a lot of events regularly; with hotels and event centres are always sold out. We plan to have an event, for instance, in June, but we couldn’t get a location in Atlanta because most of them have been booked out several months in advance. So that is the potential of the market.
Another benefit of investing in the US is that if you invest in the US market up to a million dollars, you qualify to apply for a green card. It is almost automatic. There are some requirements that must be met: if you spend up to US$1 million in investment, you provide jobs for at least 20 Americans, and if you live in an area with slower growth development, you have higher potential to be approved for your visa. It is almost automatic to get a green card, not just for yourself but for your entire family.
Finally, the dollar is still a strong currency. You can’t get it wrong by investing in US dollars. So it is actually a better deal to invest in the US market than to keep asking foreigners to invest in our country.
Do you believe President Tinubu’s 2024 budget can help improve relations with the US?
Yes, I believe so. I believe it is well planned, and the focus areas are very commendable, but beyond that, to me, it is not so much about how eloquent, convincing, or presentable the budget is. It is all about implementation.
In the past, a lot of budget was made or implemented poorly. The funds they have were not effectively used for what they were meant for, and then it leaves the economy still strangulated. So what we actually want to encourage the Tinubu administration to do is make sure to implement the budget for the purpose for which it is approved.
If money has been put aside for the growth of the health sector, let that money be spent on things that add value to the health sector. If it is education, let it reflect on the quality of our education, especially on our infrastructure.
Let there be less focus on defence. We need defence, but over the last 15 to 20 years, about 20 percent of the budget has always been assigned to defense, and we don’t have much to show for it. Military equipment is so expensive—a lot of the time it is overpriced, assigned to people that are questionable, and regardless of the amount of money they have spent on defence, the Boko Haram insurgency has not been combated yet. which means the allocation has not been utilised effectively enough to combat terrorist acts in the country.
We hope to work with the Tinubu government to put in place effective project management plans so that the budget actually fulfils its objectives.