Toyin Umesiri has spent the better part of three years trying to turn more eyes toward economic opportunities in Africa. A native of Nigeria, Umesiri left a retail career with Walmart Inc. in September 2017 and chose to follow her passion.
She is the founder and CEO of Nazaru, whose aim is to raise awareness for trade opportunities between the U.S. and African nations.
A milestone in her work is the Trade With Africa Business Summit, scheduled for May 10-11 in Bentonville. She has put together a lineup of international trade experts and business executives, including retired Tyson Foods President and CEO Donnie Smith; Scott Ford, CEO of Westrock Coffee and former president and CEO of Alltel Corp.; and Chris Folayan, CEO of Mall for Africa.
Folayan’s app Mall for Africa provides consumers across the expansive continent access to goods sold by more than 200 online stores in the U.S., including Kohl’s, Macy’s, Amazon and Best Buy. Users can also shop Walgreens, AutoZone, Party City and Barnes & Noble with the app.
Umesiri said she hopes the two-day conversation at the summit will raise curiosity among local business leaders about trade with African nations. She said the timing is right for more engagement between the U.S. and Africa, given the tensions with China over tariffs and the ongoing NAFTA renegotiating, which have been contentious at times.
Umesiri outlined a few reasons business leaders involved in commerce should take part in this upcoming summit. She said the mindset has to be transformed from aid to trade.
TRADE, NOT AID
Umesiri said over the past two decades, Africa’s policy leaders have built and strengthened political relationships in Washington, D.C., which has led to an overall increase in U.S. foreign aid toward the continent. In recent times, the conversation has shifted from capturing aid to trade, but the accompanying strategy must also shift.
“The biggest gap is Africa’s leaders must begin to establish strong partnerships with the U.S. business community outside of Washington to truly capture trade,” Umesiri said. “Trade opportunities abound outside of D.C. because corporate America is stronger in trade opportunities, while Washington remains the political epicenter.”
She points to Little Rock-based Westrock Coffee, which contracts with 80,000 growers in Rwanda, as well as Tanzania and Ethiopia, who supply coffee beans sold through trading desks in those countries. The connection helps raise the income levels of growers like Mariana Munyurwangendo of Rwanda. She is a 41-year-old coffee farmer who has been able to grow her farm from a few trees to more than 470 trees. She sells her harvests to a Westrock-financed washing station where she is paid fairly and promptly for the coffee beans. She uses those earnings to look after her family and pay for her three children to attend school.
Westrock also owns two coffee washing stations that provide employment to 85 people in Rwanda and 15 full-time workers in Tanzania. The Rwandan facility also employs 250 seasonal workers. The beans are shipped to Little Rock where they are packaged and sent to retail customers like Kroger and Harps Food Stores.
Umesiri said Ford and Westrock have raised the living standards in the countries where they have vertically integrated the business, creating a win-win for Arkansas and its African partner nations.
Africa is home to 1.1 billion people, and by 2050, the population is projected to double and become one of the world’s largest productive youth workforces. Africa has 60% of the world’s uncultivated land mass, and with manufacturing steadily shifting to Africa, the timing is right for business leaders to develop effective strategies toward the region, Umesiri said.
Smith, now retired from Tyson Foods, said he began investing in Africa around 2014 though an organization called Bridge to Rwanda. Smith said the organization works with farmers at the base of the pyramid to get them basic things they need to grow a sustainable business. He said feed mills were needed and several have been built. He said his own family began investing in Africa by selling feed and day-old chickens to small farmers in Rwanda, and more recently Tanzania. Smith said there is a great amount of potential growth, but it’s important that investors be patient because it won’t happen overnight.
“We will be part of a vertically integrated poultry industry as it evolves in Africa over the next decade,” Smith said. “We can speed up the process somewhat by applying what we have learned from the business in the U.S. and in Brazil.”
As Africa’s policymakers and business leaders race to strengthen economic ties with regions around the world, Bentonville and the state of Arkansas offer unique trade opportunities for them. With Walmart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt Transport Services and representatives of hundreds of major consumer products companies calling Northwest Arkansas home, Umesiri believes there is no other community in the world with such a concentration of trade decision makers.
As China, Latin America and India all have strong presence in the region, Umesiri said the summit and platform hope to serve as a gateway for Africa’s businesses looking to expand their reach through sales of products and services to the U.S.
Umesiri said she structured the event agenda around igniting trade conversations and facilitating actionable dialog.
“We know Africa offers new export markets for U.S. manufactured products,” she said. “Similarly, the U.S. serves as an untapped market for authentic African products — raw and manufactured. For leaders interested in export and import, sustainable agriculture, supply chain, technology innovation, women’s empowerment, health and education, this conference offers a unique opportunity to capture ideas that can be replicated to fast-track trade with the region. The U.S. still engages at less than 2% of total global trade with Sub-Saharan Africa, and there is room to grow these numbers.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Northwest Arkansas Business Journal Editor Paul Gatling interviewed Toyin Umesiri about the Trade With Africa Business Summit. You can watch the full interview below.