Barack Obama tour: Market country as gateway to Africa, Kenya urged

What you need to know:

  • The visit is expected to command considerable global attention.
  • Mr Obama’s Kenyan roots have been the subject of fascination.

President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya — the first by a sitting US President since independence — could help boost efforts to position the country as an investment, diplomatic and political “gateway to Africa” although analysts warn that more needs to be done to reap benefits from the historic trip.

President Obama is expected in Nairobi from July 24 to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, a White House initiative which gathers entrepreneurs and investors from around the world and is aimed at showcasing innovative projects and spurring economic opportunity.

The visit is expected to command considerable global attention, including from a travelling party of more than 300 journalists, because of its huge symbolic importance.

Mr Obama is the son of Kenyan Barack Obama Sr, who travelled to America to attend Harvard University in 1959. Mr Obama Sr married an American, Ms Ann Dunham, two years later and they had a son who would go on to be the first black President of the United States.

Mr Obama’s Kenyan roots have been the subject of fascination — and some controversy among conspiracy theorists who argue he was unqualified to run for President, with some claiming he was born in Kenya. His visit to East Africa, which will also take him to neighbouring Ethiopia, will be one of his most closely watched foreign trips.

While the trip will have emotional importance to Mr Obama, who first visited Kenya as a young graduate in his 20s to trace his roots and later arrived in Nairobi when he was elected senator, the visit will also be of huge importance to Kenya.

For 48 hours, the country will be in the shop window of the world, with 1,500 delegates expected at the entrepreneurship summit and millions others following the event from across Africa and beyond.   

“This is big,” says Prof Joseph Kieyah of the Kenya Institute for Public Policy, Research and Analysis. “The symbolic value of the trip is huge and the eyes of the world will be on Kenya. The Americans will have prepared for this for more than a year and will know exactly what they want. The question is whether we, Kenyans, will know how to make maximum use of such a rare opportunity.”

Although Kenya has historically been one of America’s strongest allies in Africa, it has never received a presidential visit from Washington.

The first two sitting presidents to visit sub-Saharan Africa — Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter — travelled to West Africa, while President George H.W. Bush only made a brief visit to Somalia to witness the US troops humanitarian mission in the country in January 1993.

President Clinton was the first to make an extensive visit to Africa in 1998 and 2000, but he restricted his tour to countries seen as part of the “African Renaissance” at the time including Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, Botswana, Nigeria and Tanzania.

President George W. Bush likewise skipped Kenya on his visits and opted to travel to neighbouring Tanzania. And to the disappointment of many Kenyans, President Obama also avoided Kenya on his previous trips to the continent.


That was partly due to the International Criminal Court indictment which was hanging over President Uhuru Kenyatta’s head. But with the case dropped, President Obama seems to have assessed that a trip to the country is politically feasible.

The fact that he will not run for re-election and is, therefore, no longer worried about the conspiracy theorists, also undoubtedly played into his calculus.

The Nairobi trip will be seen as clinching the reconciliation process between the Kenyan Government and the West, whose relations were placed in a hostile position during the election campaigns and worsened following Mr Kenyatta’s post-election onslaught on Kenya’s old European and American allies.

According to a briefing on the White House website written by two national security aides to Mr Obama, Grant Harris and Shannon Green, the trip will be of considerable importance.

“Just as President Kennedy’s historic visit to Ireland in 1963 celebrated the connections between Irish-Americans and their forefathers, President Obama’s trip will honour the strong historical ties between the United States and Kenya — and all of Africa — from the millions of Americans who trace their ancestry to Africa.”

Dr Samuel Nyandemo of the University of Nairobi says a critical way of measuring the success of the visit will be in assessing the level of investment which Kenya draws in the months after President Obama leaves.

“Kenya should be strategic enough to make every effort to boost investor confidence and attract as much foreign capital as possible in areas which generate jobs. There is no room for sentimentality, even though we all know that this summit was mainly a chance for President Obama to get a plausible reason to come and visit the land of his roots.”

In their article on the White House website, Obama advisers Harris and Green argue that Kenya had been picked because of the entrepreneurial spirit of its people and its leading role on the continent in this field.

“Choosing Kenya as the destination for GES underscores the fact that Africa, and Kenya in particular, has become a centre for innovation and entrepreneurship,” they write.

James Shikwati, Director of Inter Region Economic Network, called for transparency in selecting the entrepreneurs who will showcase their talents in front of investors who, he argued, could help scale up their enterprises and support innovation.

“This is a chance to position Kenyan entrepreneurs before a global audience of significant influence. There is no room for tenderpreneurs here (a reference to suppliers known for clinching corrupt deals). They should have only real men and women of talent who can use this as a platform to grow. It would be a mistake to celebrate the ambience of hosting Obama and be left with a hangover afterwards.”

Mr Shikwati argues that Kenya should hammer the mantra of being the “gateway to Africa” as a key entry point for investors and major powers seeking to have influence on the continent.


“Kenya has in recent years tried to position itself geopolitically to the extent that it was beginning to become a headache to the West. It upped the stakes until Western countries realised they didn’t want to lose their key ally that easily. But that is not enough. The key question is, how do you position yourself to benefit?”

President Obama’s visit will inevitably also be seen in the context of superpower competition between America and China. The most recent Heads of State summit for African leaders in Beijing was swiftly followed by a similar gathering in Washington in August 2014.

It was not lost on observers that while past gatherings in America would have been dominated by questions of human rights and governance; business, investment and generation of power were the key themes during the Africa summit.

Analysts see this as an effort to avoid losing ground to China which has taken an aggressive approach in seeking partners in Africa and whose Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, came to Nairobi in January.
Although China has moved ahead of all others to become the biggest provider of capital investment, especially for infrastructure projects in Africa, a recent surge of interest by American firms eyeing a share of the income of Kenya’s middle class, one of the bigger ones on the continent, means that America remains a visible and major player.

General Electric, Google, IBM, Visa International, Moneygram and Nestle are among major players that have opened regional headquarters in recent years.

Highly visible American outlets such as Cold Stone ice cream, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway Express and supermarket giant Walmart are gradually becoming fixtures in major urban centres, joining traditional American players such as Java Coffee.

The American press has also been bullish about Kenya’s prospects, with the business magazine, Fortune, naming Kenya as one of the “seven smart bets” to which companies should turn for strategic investment.

Kenya has, however, had its fair share of problems, most notably in the security sector where attacks by Al-Shabaab have shaken the country’s image as a traditionally safe destination and hurt the tourism industry.  

Although Kenya is likely to lobby against travel advisories, the key question will be whether substantial efforts will be put in by the government to handle the problems the country faces on that front.
In the short term, President Obama’s visit, with his large media and business entourage, is expected to provide a dollar boom for hotels and hospitality linked businesses.

Prof Kieyah, however, argues that the long-term picture will be the key thing to watch. He says the private sector should take a leading role in exploiting the opportunities which arise, arguing that the government cannot shoulder this task alone.

“Our task is to educate Kenyans and investors and tell them to come and grab all these chances. Waiting for the government to do it will be a mistake because it is caught up in all manner of issues, including insecurity. The Americans will definitely achieve what they want and Kenyans will have themselves to blame if they can’t position themselves for reciprocal benefits.”


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