Last week, President Donald Trump hosted a luncheon for a group of African heads of state in New York City as part of the U.N. General Assembly. He told his guests, which included the leaders of Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda, “I have so many friends going to your countries trying to get rich. I congratulate you, they’re spending a lot of money.”
The comment was part of an address on what Trump called Africa’s “tremendous business potential.”
CNN wrote about the address under the headline “Donald Trump’s comments on Africa at the UN were, um, odd.”
And indeed, some in the global African community were outraged by the “get rich” remark, saying it conjured images of the continent’s colonialist past.
But others praised it.
NPR asked three African entrepreneurs to share their perspectives.
For Manyang Reath Kher, a Lost Boy of Sudan who is now living in Richmond, Virginia, the question that came to his mind after hearing Trump’s comment: “How do you get rich in a poor country?”
And here’s his answer: “You buy stuff for a very cheap price, bring it [to the U.S.], and get a profit out of it. The people who are local never benefit,” he says. “Congo is one of the richest in natural resources in the world, but the country is very poor. Who are the [oil]wells going to?”
And he believes that when Trump refers to his “friends” he means international business people who exploit the poor for their “personal wealth,” which, he says, has been happening since Africa was first colonized by Europeans.
Kher himself is trying to bring more money into Africa — and he knows how hard it is to do business in a way that doesn’t exploit local workers. He founded 734 Coffee, a company that sells Ethiopian coffee and donates a portion of his proceeds to Sudanese refugees, and faced a mountain of paperwork to get started.
He says that it’s easier for big, international coffee conglomerates to buy beans in countries like Ethiopia. They have the money and power to negotiate and control the terms of sales in their favor, not the local farmers and agricultural workers.
Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa, a Zambian attorney, 2014 Aspen New Voices fellow and founder of the Kampala-based Hoja Law Group, is more optimistic about Trump’s remark.
“Trump sees another side of Africa that typically American leaders don’t voice,” she says.
She hopes his remark could lead to a discussion on Africa’s potential. “It’s the first time, at least during my lifetime, that there’s a positive outlook on opportunities for Africa,” she told NPR via Skype from Kampala, Uganda. “Are we going to see business as usual [from the U.S. government], as far as [them]focusing on social and military issues, or are we going to see commercial opportunities?”
Musiitwa, whose law firm represents governments and corporations in the U.S., Europe and Africa, says the onus now is on Africa to do business that’s beneficial to Africans. “Let’s make roads that go from one country to another. Let’s improve rail networks. Let’s improve telecommunications, let’s improve power, energy so we can manufacture, so we too can trade with the rest of the world.”
Ola Orekunrin Brown, a Nigerian-British medical doctor based in Lagos, says that Trump said what needed to be heard.
“If we try to take a positive view of his comment, then I think he’s being less condescending and a lot more helpful to us Africans,” says Brown, who is also a helicopter pilot and the managing director of the Flying Doctors, a for-profit air ambulance service that works in West Africa.
“We need to be talking about business, making money, profit,” she says. “And he said those words. It’s been a long time since I heard those words being used in relation to Africa like he did.”
What she’s used to hearing are comments from development agencies about bringing more foreign aid to Africa for health, education and other needs: “They’ve concentrated on the alleviation of poverty at the expense of creating prosperity,” says Brown. “For a lot of African countries, it’s produced a lot of dependency to aid.”
“From my perspective,” she adds, “Trump’s comment encourages people to view Africa as a destination for trade and entrepreneurship. [Poverty] will continue to be a problem until we can employ more people.”