Europe is “light years ahead” of the U.S. in doing business with Africa, a resource-rich land home to more than a billion people, said Michael Battle, an Atlantan now serving as U.S. ambassador to the African Union.

“I think a lot of U.S. companies and a lot of the U.S. as a whole do not understand the advantages of engaging with the African continent,” said Dr. Battle, who was president of the Interdenominational Theological Seminary in Atlanta for the last six years.

That’s not to say that U.S. firms haven’t shown any interest. Africa traded more than $140 billion in goods with the U.S. in 2008, its highest volume with any individual country.

But U.S. oil imports from places like Nigeria and Angola accounted for much of that balance, and the U.S. trade deficit with the continent stood at $85 billion in 2008.

European firms make up the bulk of foreign direct investment in Africa, while U.S. firms often fail to see the vast economic potential beyond the continent’s natural resources and behind its obvious problems, Dr. Battle told GlobalAtlanta in a wide-ranging interview. 

After his nomination by President Obama and confirmation in the U.S. Senate, Dr. Battle left in August to take up the new post at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The U.S. mission there works to promote democracy, health and economic ties while strengthening the union, the only venue for 53 African nations (all except Morocco) to speak with one voice on issues that supersede national boundaries. 

While problems like starvation, civil war, genocide are real, engaging Africa is not all about peacemaking and philanthropy. U.S. firms can make money while helping Africa grow, and they shouldn’t ignore the opportunity, Dr. Battle said. 

“There are too many resources on this continent, there are too many people on this continent, there are too many markets on this continent that we need to explore and engage,” he said. 

Infrastructure and agriculture are areas in which U.S. expertise can make a significant impact, Dr. Battle said. 

“Africa has a huge landmass. Much of that land is undeveloped. What a golden opportunity it is for expert teams and the agricultural science and agricultural engineering we have in the U.S,” he said. 

If schools like the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University would “assist the African Union in figuring out ways that it can transform barren land into fertile land, Africa could then feed not only itself, but it could then export food resources to other parts of the world where there is deprivation,” he added.

Africa also has vast mineral and oil wealth, but a dearth of roads connecting countries means it’s often difficult to transport those commodities throughout the continent.

American firms have civil engineers who can design roads to connect the entire continent of Africa, Dr. Battle said. 

Similarly, investment in airports and ocean ports will smooth the flow of trade inside Africa as well as with outside countries like the U.S.

“Africa now is pretty much what the U.S. was in the late 1700s and early 1800s: fertile land, no roads connecting it, no rail lines connecting it,” Dr. Battle said. “Then all of a sudden somebody got the wisdom and said, ‘If we develop the seaports and riverways, develop the major cities with transportation, then not only could people travel more easily, but the movement of commodities can flow more easily.’ That’s what Africa needs.”

Integrated economic policy among member countries could provide more opportunities for U.S. exporters, who are sometimes deterred by variation in tariff structures from country to country across Africa, Dr. Battle said. 

Currently, African countries identify more with regional blocs organized along geographic, cultural and linguistic lines, but that could change in 10 to 15 years, he added. 

“The African Union will use the time between now and 2018 try to work on consolidating the rules, regulations, laws and legislations in different African nations that prohibit free exchange of commodities and free trade,” Dr. Battle said. “That’s going to take a long time. What the U.S. has to do is to be patient with the African Union while it works on integration.”

Meanwhile, China has emerged as an economic competitor to the U.S. in Africa. China-Africa trade eclipsed $100 billion last year, making it the second largest national trading partner behind the U.S. 

The Asian nation been engaged with the continent for decades, but it has increasingly turned to Africa in recent years to fuel its surging need for natural resources as its economy has grown at breakneck speed. 

Last week, China’s government unveiled a $10 billion loan package to help African nations with economic development, which China insists isn’t tied to any political concessions. China is also building the African Union’s new headquarters and conference center, “a massive, gorgeous, ecologically sound facility,” at no cost to the union, said Dr. Battle. 

The U.S. doesn’t see Africa as a Cold War-type battleground in which to fight China for ideological primacy, he said. While the U.S. is actively insisting on the development of democracy and good governance with its trading partners, China doesn’t seem to be exerting reciprocal political pressures.

“China’s dealing with the African continent is not politically oriented. It’s not seeking to democratize the continent or to make the continent communist or non-democratic. China’s interest appears to purely economic,” Dr. Battle said.

At the same time, critics argue that China’s economic policies in Africa buttress rogue regimes in places like Zimbabwe, undercutting U.S. efforts to foster good governance throughout the continent, an issue at the top of Dr. Battle’s agenda.

Highlighting this sensitivity, a Chinese company with alleged ties to the Chinese central government is considering a $7 billion oil, infrastructure and mining deal with the military junta in Guinea that took power in a recent coup.

Shortly after they took power, members of the junta fired into a crowd of pro-democracy protesters, killing at least 150 and allegedly raping some of the survivors.

The U.S., African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, have all condemned the coup and strongly urged the nation to return to the democratic process, Dr. Battle said.

“The African Union, with the assistance and encouragement of the U.S., European Union and ECOWAS, is making a very, very bold stand that it will not tolerate the military takeover that happened in Guinea and is insisting that it return to full democracy,” Dr. Battle said. 

Niger is another problem area. Six months ago, President Mamadou Tandja, ignoring protests by the opposition party, suspended the country’s constitutional court and ordered a referendum that gave him authority to reign for three more years and run for later elections. 

Dr. Battle said the African Union is supporting ECOWAS sanctions against the regime.

Despite these setbacks, there have also been positive strides, like peaceful transfers of power in war-torn countries like Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire and the successful use of sanctions against Mauritania to get that country back onto a democratic track, he said. 

When looking at Africa, it’s also important for western countries to remember the bumps on their roads toward democracy, a relatively young concept in a continent fully released from the “tyranny” of colonialism only about 20 years ago, Dr. Battle said. 

“We have emerged as the example of democratic governance, but it took us a long time to get there,” he said, citing slavery, women’s suffrage and civil rights as hurdles the American society has cleared. 

African nations have been able to learn from some of the West’s mistakes. For instance, the African Union requires that half of its eight commissioners are women.

“One does not look at a well developed U.S. and EU and transpose that on a continent that is emerging in democracy,” Dr. Battle said. “Apples to apples, not apples to oranges, has to be the analogy.”

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...