Americanizing businesses

A new Foreign Commercial Service office (FCS) has opened in Ethiopia to facilitate US trade and investment. Ethiopia was the first such office to open this year as one of four new offices with the mission to increase the US trade and investment footprint not only in Ethiopia and East Africa but the rest of the continent. The other offices are: Tanzania, Mozambique and Angola and at the African Development Bank in Ivory Coast The office provides Business to Business (B2B) partnership screening and match match-making for US companies with their Ethiopian counterparts. It also provides market intelligence and access strategies for exporting and trade investment in Ethiopia. In addition, it facilitates a number of trade missions from the US which bring qualified exporters and investors to the region. It also facilitates trade delegations from Ethiopia to the US and other regions to meet US companies at the International Buyer Programs focusing on ICT. Health, Energy, and the hospitality sector.

Tanya Cole joined the US Commercial Service in 2006 as a Foreign Service Officer after more than 20 years of experience in the private sector working on engineering and environmental infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the US. She served as Environmental Engineering Expert for the French Development Agency, USAID and the World Bank for water treatment, transportation, roads and waste management projects. She has lived in Egypt, France, Malaysia, Philippines, Colombia, and Tunisia before assuming her recent position – Senior Commercial Officer – at the US embassy. Bruh Yihunbelay of The Reporter sat down with Tanya Cole to discuss the role of her office and what lies ahead. Excerpts:

The Reporter: You are here to run the foreign commercial service office at the US embassy. It is a new office to be opened here in Addis. Can you tell us a little bit about the office?

Tanya Cole: We are really excited about it. This is one of President Obama's Doing Business in Africa initiative. One of the things he wanted to do is increase the US business footprint in Africa. So Ethiopia is was one of the four office opened up. And we are really excited about that because we got Ethiopia open and running and we have local commercial specialists specializing in different sectors here who can actually be the bridge for the US companies who are coming here or are interested in trade and development. The other offices are in Tanzania, Mozambique and Angola. We also have an office opening up in Côte d’Ivoire to be attached to the African Development Bank.

What is the basic purpose of the office?

What we heard from the government of Ethiopia is  'Where are the US companies?' 'Why aren't there more US companies here?' – because US companies are known for quality and corporate social responsibility. One of the things that I would like to highlight is that when US companies come over they just don't come up with their goods and services and technology. What we try to do is train people so that they can take ownership of those particular projects or services. They are the ones who actually can move forward which is more of a sustainable goal. So what my office is doing is being that bridge. We try to attract US investment and US trade. So we are not just coming over trying to sell Ethiopia things; we are building a partnership and a good example of that is the Los Angeles business delegation that is just coming in [the interview was conducted before the delegation arrived] which one of the members was a representative of the 127-year-old chamber of commerce in Los Angeles. This is a fact-finding mission and he is interested in building relationships with the Ethiopian government and the private sector so that we can take US know-how, quality and have the technology transfer since we have the universities and smart cities. They mentioned also there is a whole environmental group in Los Angeles and we have already jumped through those hoops in terms of pollution and things like that and we have a good urban planning and development and we would like to take that and offer it to the Ethiopian government. We are not saying that our plan is the best plan but basically we have already solved those hiccups and so this gives Ethiopia a chance to leapfrog. So what our office is doing is attracting US interests, US businesses and US investment and trying to do something that we are good at. For instance, our sweet spot is in innovation and we understand that ICT is a major part of the GTP, healthcare is also something we are known for. In that regard, we have the Googles and the Yahoos and I am proud of LA because I grew up there. So we want to be able to bring that and share it with the Ethiopian people. In addition, we have a huge diaspora community in Los Angeles, in Washington DC, in Atlanta and in New York and so our office is sort of the core that is trying to build sustainable relationships.

The US government has put in place different programs and initiatives for African countries like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the Power Africa Initiative. Are there any other new programs or initiatives in the pipeline particularly towards sub-Saharan Africa?

One of the things I would like to mention as part of the Power Africa Initiative there is the Trade Hub. It is kind of a funding for a grant assistance program. Where that becomes important is, for example, when you try to do a power project you need to be able to have advisory, technological and financial services, which are some of the challenges. So where there is capacity gap, you will have someone in place who can bridge that. That's is a new program that is coming into place. Actually, the Trade Hub is in place in Kenya but there is some talk about Trade Hub expanding to Ethiopia. I will give you an example. Imagine that you are doing a wind farm and you are trying to think about how you are going to build this wind farm, have construction management, transfer it and have proper financing. Often it will be very useful if you could tap into a fund or a grant where you can get that technical advisor, someone who has actually done that or advised similar projects in other countries. That's where Trade Hub would click in. The other program is one of our sister organizations called US Trade Development Agency, which is a wonderful program. They bring reverse trade mission which include project coordinators, project leaders or government officials. A good example is your government's plan to have a new airport at a lower altitude. You might want to look at supply chain. How do we go about building an efficient supply chain? How do we go about building ticket offices? The US Trade Development Agency actually puts in a trade mission where these leaders – decision-makers – can go to the US and not just to one city they can go to key areas. For example, they can go to New York or the New Jersey airport. They can also go Los Angeles for cold chain; LA is well known for cold chain. And in terms of the network for the trans-intermodal facilities like how you do get the goods and the cargo on rail and transfer it out of trucking systems are some of the things the TDA does. They can put together grants for that. They also have technological training grants and where we see that is with Boeing, for example. So you are not just buying our airplanes but they are actually putting grants so that your people can actually be trained. And one of the things that came out of that is, and I don't know if you know this but, Ethiopian Airlines, is actually doing the wiring not just for Boeing planes but for all of Boeing's customers. So that's a very good organization to tap into. There is also EX-IM bank which provides very good financing and are looking at longer-term financing for Ethiopia. So we are constantly looking at this. Last week I had some discussions with our people in the Department of Commerce and they are trying to put together an investment roadshow. And what we would do is help the Ethiopian government. For instance, look at the Growth and Transformation Plan, which are your priorities, and identify five projects. What we would do is we would bring the project managers and decision- makers to New York because Wall Street is where the investors are and we bring them together and we try to get the investors to understand what it takes to make these deals and what are the project requirements. After that, they would come back here in November where we are having the corporate council of Africa summit with the AU – we are talking about a thousand people being here and 700 US companies. There they can actually go over and try to redevelop those deals. After the November summit, there will be another investment summit either in Ethiopia or Kenya in February where there will be follow-up on those deals. So it is not a one-time “I saw this person” thing. This is about building a sustainable relationship and partnership.

The Chinese have been here for over a decade engaged in trade and investment followed by the Turks who are now leading in Foreign Direct Investment followed by the Indians and some EU member countries. Why did it take the US this long to come to Ethiopia?

Honestly, the US is a big place. Interesting enough I grew up in Los Angeles but it took me a while just to go to the east coast. We are very much like stay-in-our-place. So I think that part of reason is awareness and really getting the word out. The other thing is it is a lot easier for Europe to come over here because there are flights to Ethiopia. That is one thing; you need to have a reliable transportation service. For instance, if I have to visit my cousins in New York we had to sit down think about it and plan it. So now you are talking about leapfrogging to another continent. It's not just Africa by the way. It took a while to go to Europe and other countries. So I think it is about awareness and have a good and reliable air transportation which fortunately we have now with Ethiopian Airlines, one of the fastest growing top airlines.

You talked about the Chinese being here but you talked about apples and oranges. Here is where the difference lies. For example, I work for the US government Department of Commerce but I have 16 years in the private sector. I've worked in Asia and built a light railway system in the Philippines and when I look at that light rail system and compare it to the light rail system here let's just say we are talking about apples and oranges. So one of the things I like to focus on is when US companies want to do something they want to do it right. It's about quality and we put our name behind it. We are not interested in just selling low quality materials. We are interested in selling quality. It should be something we can come back and say “hey we built that” and something that we can be proud of.

But when it comes to quality, EU member countries and Turkey also say that they produce quality products. What makes the US different?

The Turks are really strong in the textile sector and you mention about quality and I would agree in that case because a lot of the textile cotton is US cotton. I actually went to the facility and reviewed the manufacturing process and one of the things that they were saying is that they would like to get this BT cotton here because it's a more durable and longer sustainable cotton. I like to say that we think the Turkish people are actually promoting our goods and services. In relationship to German technology I would agree. I am not saying that US technology is the only quality technology. But you asked what made us different. It has to do with sustainability and we are a country that is made up of Turkish people, German people and Chinese people among many others. So what is different is that we tend to integrate and try to understand. When I grew up one of my neighbors were from Mexico and my other neighbor was from Malaysia and then down the street we had the Japanese. So it's not something where we are coming to another culture and it's a surprise to us. It's why we have so much Ethiopian diaspora in Los Angeles and other US cities. So I think what makes us different is that we do have that bond and we are a melting pot. We believe the issues with culture can make things more interesting and so it's not very difficult for us.

What is the current volume of trade between Ethiopia and the US?
The current volume of trade does not meet our expectations but I believe that there is a huge possibility that it will increase. For instance, US exports to Ethiopia in 2014 stood at USD 907,363,866 and in 2015 it rose to USD 1,696,809,666. US mostly exported Boeing aircraft to Ethiopia. On the flip side, imports from Ethiopia to the US stood at USD 188,336,492 in 2014 and rose to USD 225,582,891 in 2015. I can tell you that Ethiopia is one of the top five African destinations for US companies.

One point I would like to raise is that Ethiopia has AGOA. That is a great opportunity for the Ethiopian government and the Ethiopian people to take advantage of that. In fact, what is happening is other countries are taking advantage of that. In relative terms, Kenya is taking better advantage of that. Similarly, in a similar program, countries like India, China and Turkey are taking advantage of that. I think Ethiopia's share was somewhere between two to four percent of total exports coming into the US in AGOA. I think that is one of the opportunities that the Ethiopian government can do a lot better at.

Recently, Ethiopian Airlines started a new flight to Los Angeles. Where do you think the next destination should be?

I know there has been some talk that Ethiopian Airlines is looking at flying to New York and that that makes a lot of sense since New York is the financial capital and also the fashion capital. Ethiopians are up and coming in the textile sector. Not just in textile manufacturing but also in designing. We did an event some six to seven months ago with  the Fashion Institute of Technology and we had many of the top designers represented there in the audience. We also had PVH – owner of the Tommy Hilfiger and  Calvin Klein brand among others. We also brought in many representatives from Ethiopia including local designers, textile operators and even people from the government. We had sort of a two-way conversation on supply chain and harnessing supply chain. What's really interesting there and what came out of that is there is tremendous opportunity for doing partnership between the Fashion Institute of Technology or it could be the Parsons School of Design or any of those schools to do technology transfer. For example, they would send some of their people over and it's not just fashion design but even simple things like putting labeling on material or quality control because they have a number of different things that go on the whole process of creating a label or clothing.  The idea would be bringing some of their people over from their schools and they would do an internship here and help one of the leaders here build their designs and then have those designers actually go back to New York where there will be a trade in technology and knowledge know-how.

What do you plan to achieve here?

I think one of the things is opening this office, hire the staff and get them enthusiastic about attracting US companies and bringing US companies here. And I think that vision has already starting to come to fruition because we have the LA delegation. Further down September, we are going to have companies coming to Ethiopia from all over the US. We actually have 38 companies that indicated that they were interested. This is in the healthcare sector, infrastructure, education, IT and all the different sectors. The challenge is getting more trade liberalization like opening up some of the sectors like banking, telecom and logistics. It is interesting because when we say opening up some of the sectors people think it is opening up your door and letting anyone come in. No. there is a phase process and you have good examples like Kenya, Ghana and South Africa. These are perfect examples of how to do it in a phase process. What comes out of that is that you get better competition, more quality and sustainable relationships and partnerships. These are my major goals.