Chargé d’ Affaires David Young Remarks to Small and Medium Enterprise Conference

  • Your Excellency, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Former President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria
  • Honorable Minister Okechukwu Enelamah of the Ministry of Industry, Trade & Investment
  • Chief Olabintan Famutimi, national President of the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce
  • Sheriff Balogun – President and Chairman of the Kaduna Chapter of the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce, an active and valuable partner of our Embassy
  • Government officials and Business leaders
  • Ladies and gentlemen of the press
  • My favorite Nigerian saying “All protocols observed.”

Good Morning.  I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you today.  As you may know, just last week the Senate confirmed our new Ambassador, Stuart Symington, and we very much look forward to his arrival.  In the meantime, it is my great privilege to be serving currently as head of our largest and most dynamic in Africa.  With our Embassy here in Abuja and our Consulate General in Lagos, U.S. Mission Nigeria employs over 250 Americans and close to 800 Nigerians, a highly talented and dedicated team who are working together to build and enhance the relationship between our two countries – a relationship that I think it’s fair to say both countries view as among their most important in the world.

The United States has provided more than half a billion dollars in annual assistance to Nigeria in the areas of health and security, but we are also increasingly focused on the issue of economic stability and growth.  We recognize that our shared health and security goals depend on a prosperous economy.

At the U.S. Africa Business Forum two weeks ago in New York, President Obama said –:  “Wherever I’ve gone, from Senegal to South Africa, Africans insist they don’t just want aid, they want trade. They want partners, not patrons. They want to do business, and grow business . . . and the United States is determined to be that partner, for the long term.”

And, as our previous Ambassador James Entwistle frequently noted, the relationship between our two countries is indeed a partnership, one in which the United States does not do things for Nigeria, but with Nigeria.

Under President Obama, the United States has continued to take important steps to be Africa’s best business partner. Launching Trade Africa and Power Africa, creating the Doing Business in Africa campaign, and increasing commitments from U.S. Export-Import Bank.  New commitments from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency as well as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.  Last year, Congress renewed the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act for a decade.  Global Entrepreneurship Summits and Young African Leaders Initiative programs – which regularly feature the outstanding participation of young Nigerians – are, in President Obama’s words “giving . . . talented, striving young Africans the tools and networks to become the entrepreneurs and business leaders of the future.”

At the U.S. Africa Business Forum, President Obama announced that“American investment in Africa is up 70 percent.  U.S. exports to Africa have surged.  Iconic companies — FedEx, Kellogg’s, Google — are growing their presence on the continent.  You can now hail an Uber in Lagos.  In the last two years, American and African companies have concluded deals worth nearly $15 billion, which will support African development across the board, from manufacturing to health care to renewable energy.”

But as President Obama pointed out, there is still much more that needs to be done.  And the question facing all of us today is how do we work together – American business groups, Nigerian business groups, and our respective governments – to address the unique set of challenges facing the small and medium-sized enterprises that create much of the employment and economic growth of this country?

We’ve all seen Nigeria’s recent economic indicators: negative GDP growth, declines in oil production and in foreign exchange reserves, a negative balance of trade, a weakened naira, high inflation, and high unemployment.  In 2014, when oil prices were over $100/barrel, you could buy a dollar for 155 naira. Today that same dollar will cost you about 315 naira at the official interbank rate.  Or, if you’re like many who can’t get the dollars they need at the interbank market, that dollar may cost you more than 450 naira on the parallel market.  For businesses that rely on importation of goods and services, that is a tremendous loss of purchasing power.  For businesses that need to borrow money to grow, the situation is even more challenging, because loan rates exceed 20%.

I would like to make three brief points on this situation:

First, this is a time of economic opportunity.  As President Buhari said in his speech two weeks ago at the U.S. Africa Business forum:  “These are no doubt challenging times for the Nigerian economy. But let me use this opportunity to boldly affirm our conviction that there is no crisis without an accompanying opportunity. In our case, we see Nigeria’s ongoing economic challenges – occasioned mainly by the fall in oil prices – as an opportunity to set the economy firmly on the path of true diversification, sustainable economic growth, and shared prosperity.

Second, this new economy should embrace its role as a vibrant part of the global trade and investment market, rather than try to continue with protections that haven’t been able to grow Nigerian industry.

Allowing markets to set prices for things like foreign currency, energy, and agriculture, rather than using scarce government resources to try to control those markets, must be a fundamental component of the new Nigerian economy.

Third, Small and Medium sized Enterprises are the businesses that will carry Nigeria into this new economy.  Just as they are in the United States, SMEs in Nigeria are the drivers of job creation, of innovation, and of economic growth.  I congratulate the Kaduna chapter of the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce for focusing attention on the needs and opportunities of Nigeria’s SMEs.  There are few things that can be done to address Nigeria’s ailing economy more effectively than improving the conditions of SMEs.

I would like to emphasize the point about job creation. One of the reasons why we are all paying close attention to these current economic indicators is because they are speaking to us about the present capacity of the Nigerian economy to create jobs for the roughly five million young people who are entering the job market every year.  Currently, youth employment is 24% and rising.  Large corporations at best can only absorb a small fraction of these new job seekers.  SMEs provide the best opportunity we have for creating productive jobs for these young people.  A healthy SME sector is so important to meeting our shared health and security goals.

The United States is Nigeria’s long term partner in this effort.  No other foreign nation invests more in Nigeria than the United States.

USAID’s Nigerian Expanded Trade and Transport, project is helping to develop the capacity and efficiency of the vital Lakaji corridor link between Lagos in the south and Jibiya on the border with Niger in the north.  The U.S. Trade and Development Agency brings Nigerian government officials and businessmen to the United States in reverse trade missions to build business connections and promote investment and trade.

Later in this conference, you will hear directly from a USTDA representative about their Nigeria programs.  OPIC and ExIm both have active and growing loan portfolios here.  Our Foreign Commercial Service regularly organizes trade and commercial delegations from Nigeria to the United States, and in fact our new Commercial Counselor is an active participant in this conference.  I should also add that the Nigerian American Chamber of Commerce also plays an active role in bringing delegations from northern Nigeria to trade and industry shows in the United States, and I commend their tireless work to develop and deepen the commercial ties between the United States and Nigeria.  Sheriff, once again congratulations to you and your organization.

The partnership between the United States and Nigeria is a vital relationship for us, it is one that is broad and deep and one we can hope to continue to grow.  I look forward to my work here over the next three years.

Mr. President, Minister Enelamah, members of the Chamber of Commerce, other dignitaries, thank you for this opportunity to address you, and thank you for the work you are doing on behalf of Nigeria and the U.S.-Nigeria relationship.