Chudi Okafor, Atlanta-based consul general for Nigeria, addresses a panel at Africa forum.

As uprisings and violence in Nigeria and Somalia have pervaded African news in recent months, a U.S. Commerce Department forum held in Atlanta accentuated the positive about business prospects on the continent.

“It is evident that in terms of natural and mineral resources, Africa remains the richest continent in the world,” said Chudi Okafor, the Atlanta-based consul general of Nigeria, during the June 29 event held at the Georgia Tech Research Institute that drew more than 50 attendees.

He said that despite the bad news there were positive developments taking place, including Angola’s high growth rate last year exceeding 16 percent fueled by its oil sector.

The Obama administration has underscored U.S. interest in Africa with the president’s July visit to Ghana and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s seven-country, 11-day tour beginning on Aug. 3 including stopovers in Angola, Nigeria and Kenya, where she is to meet with Somali leaders.

Panelists at the “Exporting to Africa” forum represented local companies with a range of experience on the continent from the Coca-Cola Co., which has been in Africa for almost a century, to Afronetwork Inc. LLC, which has been there for only a year and a half.

George Tracy, director of the U.S. Commercial Office in Atlanta, the department’s trade promotion unit that hosted the event, called for “an overriding need for a change” in U.S. company initiatives on the continent, saying that interest remained fairly low despite the opportunities available.

Vince Farley, a former U.S. State Department official who is the honorary consul for Mali, said that Atlanta companies should take advantage of the widespread awareness of the city in Africa because of CNN and Coca-Cola.

“Atlanta was historically a center of U.S. support in Africa’s quest for independence,” he added.  “Participants in this Department of Commerce seminar highlighted once again the opportunities for U.S. companies based in Atlanta to build on this basic cooperation to export their products and services to Africa.”

Johnny Brown, who is president of a Covington-based marketing and consulting firm focused on Africa, said that Africans know the city because of the careers of Martin Luther King Jr.; former U.N. ambassador, congressman and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and former President Carter.

The panels included representatives of the following Atlanta-based companies: Afronetwork, a telecommunications company; Coca-Cola; Laser Atlanta LLC, a developer of laser mapping and traffic system applications; Nioxin Research Laboratories Inc., a hair care products manufacturer and USA Ink Supply Inc., an office products firm.

Representatives of the American Nigerian International Chamber of Commerce, East Africa America Business Council and South African Chamber of Commerce, all based in Atlanta, also spoke at the event.

John Fleming, a commercial officer based in Atlanta, and Jacobus Boers, an instructor at Georgia State University’s Institute of International Business, presented political and economic overviews.

Ray Gibeau, regional manager of the U.S. Small Business Administration, described various government programs to help finance companies conducting business in Africa.

Speaking on behalf of Coca-Cola, Carolos Pagoaga, manager of community and multicultural communications for Coca-Cola North America, described how Coke’s sales of 36 billion bottles a year in Africa contributes to the continent’s sustainable development. “For every one job created, 16 are employed,” he said.

The company also has launched the Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) with the objective of providing Africans access to clean water.

Bill Scully, CEO of Afronetwork, said his first exposure to Africa came as a surprise and that he instinctively tried to avoid competition by keeping the opportunities for companies such as his own a secret.

He warned the attendees, however, to guard against this instinct to operate alone and encouraged them to find partners.

James Kelly, president and CEO of Laser Atlanta, warned that companies should be sure to be paid before shipping in order to avoid corruption, but encouraged them to look for business there.

Jamezell Ottinger, vice president of international business of Nioxin, advocated the same business approach of getting paid before delivering goods.

“Everything is game, everything is needed,” said Emelia Orubele, president of the American Nigerian chamber.

Toni Castel, president of the South African American chamber, also underscored opportunities for U.S. companies and cited the World Cup games to take place in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010 as a perfect time to explore opportunities in that country.

Derreck Kayango, a board member of the East Africa America Business Council, said that his organization had great contacts for companies interested in pursuing business in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

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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...