Capitalizing on opportunities, and seeing business grow

Friday, November 25 2011

Vanessa Adams, USAID Trade Hub Director

Four years ago, I was expecting my first baby when the second iteration of the USAID Trade Hub was launched. It was an exciting time, full of personal and project dreams and expectations.

USAID Trade Hub Director Vanessa Adams has guided the project's success.
USAID Trade Hub Director Vanessa Adams has guided the project's success.
You could call my first child the cashew baby – the creation of the African Cashew Alliance and my first child, Makena, were born very closely. My second baby, Elsa, was my Global Shea Alliance in 2010. The Borderless Alliance is the third of my Hub children – and will perhaps benefit from more focus – as there are fewer sleepless nights and now walking and growing children!

Yes, you could say I take my work home. I take our successes and results, constraints and challenges personally.

Lots of people look at West Africa and see the problems for business – but the Trade Hub saw opportunities virtually everywhere we looked. The key questions were, how do we develop and, literally, capitalize on that potential?

On one level, most people would agree we have succeeded. In the past four years, the Trade Hub has facilitated over $175 million in exports from West Africa to international markets. We’ve also facilitated over $53 million in investments. All together, that works out to about a 7:1 return on investment. While I had fought to maintain conservative targets, I think most investors would like those numbers – they largely surpassed my privately, cautiously optimistic expectations.

But that’s the bottom line – as I tell my staff, the Trade Hub’s story is not only told by numbers. Consider Minata Kone, who started a cashew processing company in Burkina Faso not too long before the second phase of the Trade Hub started. She struggled and fought to keep her company open, and she has prevailed. In September, she was elected to the executive committee of the African Cashew Alliance, a vote of confidence from its 100-plus members representing the industry across the world.

Minata Kone of Sotria-B, a cashew processor in Burkina Faso.
Minata Kone of Sotria-B, a cashew processor in Burkina Faso.
The Trade Hub’s story is really about people. We have worked with export-ready company owners, managers and workers across the region whose efforts are, each, compelling stories. We have hundreds of partners across the region, strong relationships with key stakeholders who again and again have responded to the powerful call of economic development – Trade is aid.

I’ve seen it work with my own eyes. Since 2008, we’ve engaged internationally renowned economist Dr. Daniel Bromley of the University of Wisconsin in the U.S. to prove that science supports our practical, business-focused results.

We worked from the theory that has been tried and tested around the world – increasing exports leads to economic growth. But few know exactly how that works. In reality, the daily details and struggles of these managers and their companies’ successes – and failures – reflect the keys to international competitiveness and trade-based growth.

To succeed in any business you have to take risks, plan to succeed and prepare to fail, innovate and learn fast from mistakes. I’ve seen many near failures snatched from the jaws of defeat.

We took a two-pronged approach: first, we worked directly with leading export-ready companies, helping them address the specific problems affecting their competitiveness. This has included redesigning and sourcing packaging to expanding productive capacity, from following regional and international export rules to business plan development to setting up a website.

A dynamic staff with extensive experience has implemented Trade Hub activities.
A dynamic staff with extensive experience has implemented Trade Hub activities.
Second, we worked on broader constraints to business – well beyond the issues companies deal with within their factory walls: the high costs of transport, the limited access to finance, and the uneven almost arbitrary enforcement of regional trade rules. No single company can hope to resolve these problems alone – that realization drove our work in building industry clusters and alliances, as well as constantly striving to increase our communications quality and dissemination coverage to the  22,000 people on our list.

There are so many growth areas for business in the region. However, we continue to believe in the “narrow and deep” strategy – focusing on targeted agribusiness and consumer goods sectors, along with their cross-cutting constraints.

Consider shea. The Trade Hub’s expert, Dr. Peter Lovett, brought over 15 years experience – he calls himself a “shea nut”, he’s actually a shea encyclopedia and almanac and business manual on two legs. Dr. Lovett’s understanding of the industry made him a midwife to the birth of the Global Shea Alliance, support from our technical staff, Kafui Djonou and Aaron Adu along with our market linkages team, helped companies get to the annual conference, business-to-business events and trade shows where they met buyers and made deals.

People are key to the Trade Hub's impacts, like shea business women.
People are key to the Trade Hub's impacts, like shea business women.
In handcrafts, cashew, specialty foods and apparel, I could go on and on about heroic staff coming through for trade. In 2007, AGOA Services Manager Abou Fall literally camped out in a customs office to cajole a customs official into signing a textile visa in order for an order to be shipped to the U.S. duty-free! That kind of commitment and determination has driven the Trade Hub as much as – and maybe more than – a grand economic theory of export-led growth!

At the same time, we also learned about the broader constraints through in-depth studies. In transport, we looked closely at the practical problem of reducing costs. Quarterly reports on road governance raised public and private awareness of checkpoints, bribes and delays – more importantly, they mobilized people to do something about it.

The Trade Hub has developed six internationally recognized West African brands.
The Trade Hub has developed six internationally recognized West African brands.
At first, I confess that even we did not know what to make of the results of our analysis of the gaps in the implementation of the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme. But it has been instrumental in galvanizing support and inspiring action by ECOWAS, national governments, public agencies and the private sector to take interest and improve regional integration. One of our favorite innovations from this gap analysis is the Lome-Aflao Border Information Center.

After critical review of our volumes of technical reports and pages of recommendations and with serious help from Publicis Ghana, EXP Social Media and with key stakeholders, we launched the Borderless advocacy campaign in 2010 and it has spawned the Borderless Alliance – leading regional companies are now working together to do something about how ridiculously long it takes and how unpredictable it is to move goods across the region. Improvements in these areas would truly transform the regional economy, as our latest open, expedited trade report demonstrates (coming soon).

We had to try lots of things to get results on finance – it was not easy. Commercial banks are making good money simply lending to governments – they have little incentive to pursue internationally competititve loans with export-ready companies in nontraditional sectors. But that is slowly changing, thankfully. I saw a similar situation in the U.S. in the 1990s – it’s not an inherent concept in banking to do relationship banking and develop more appropriate and diverse products for those customers.

It's about jobs: Trade Hub activities have created almost 10,000 jobs.
It's about jobs: Trade Hub activities have created almost 10,000 jobs.
Customer commitment to banks is now becoming a driver of West African commercial banks due to increased competition.

So, we have worked hard to introduce competition in access to finance, working closely with social investors and international funds. The Grassroots Business Fund, Root Capital and the Acumen Fund have made a significant impact on the equation, in particular for trade finance and quasi-equity. 

We complemented all of this with a ferocious communications program. We have demonstrated beyond doubt that communications is critical. We now manage five internationally respected West African brands with stakeholders in each respective industry, including one advocacy campaign brand, Borderless. These brands have helped stakeholders get their messages out while building collaboration with such success.

In fact, the Trade Hub’s support via the shea and cashew alliances has reached from rural cooperatives along the full value chain, cross business sizes and inclusive of financial and logistics partners. We began innovating to drive trade and investing in buyers trips and regional industry conferences.

West Africa has now been home for over nine years. The past seven years at the Trade Hub and four years of our most recent contract period have been full of growth, opportunity and innovation. I’m proud our team has achieved so much – but equally impressed by the entrepreneurs, owners and managers and workers, public officials, international and regional private sector companies, civil society groups and many others who have been a critical part of our success.

To them all I say: business is booming in West Africa – you are making it happen every day.

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1 comment

Dick Jennings wrote 2 years 11 weeks ago

Vanessa Adams

What an accomplishment. To have patiently developed the Trade Hub and all it's many activities is a tremendous achievement. More power to Vanessa and hopes that the recognition for these many completed tasks is properly rewarded. This writer ranks the little ones as more important than the business successes. Hope your fourth and fifth live up to your standards, ps: typically Vanessa is standing in the back row....

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