Shadow Events Hope To Skim Some Attention From U.S.-Africa Summit

While the U.S.-African Leaders Summit has aimed to facilitate meetings between American companies and African leaders, it's also provided an opportunity for smaller investors to make contacts and for human rights workers to try to get their voices heard.

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The official African Leader Summit ends tomorrow, but all this week there are satellite events. Some of them connect Africans with investors. Some are focused not only on business, but on human rights. From the shadow of the summit, Gregory Warner has that story.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: One of those shadow events is a morning forum downtown about African Diaspora investment, where at a coffee break, I meet two guys speaking Swahili - one is Ben Kazora, who left Tanzania 10 years ago.

BEN KAZORA: I came to school here.

WARNER: You came to school here.

KAZORA: I'm a Purdue graduate, I'm an electrical engineer. I'm doing my PhD now in electrical engineering.

WARNER: While the guy he's talking to, Charles Singili, has been, well, three days in D.C.

CHARLES SINGILI: Well, I'm three days old - in D.C.

WARNER: So if one of the stated aims in this week's African Leaders Summit is to enable business meetings between American companies and African leaders, that can mean some Fortune 500 CEO getting face time with Nigeria's president. But it can also mean lots of small meetings in unofficial settings like this one, between a chairman of a medium-sized Tanzanian bank and a Tanzanian-American PhD student living in Dallas, whose investments in his home country he says, are still small-scale.

KAZORA: Well, I mean, you try to put in like, 20,000 every year, take it back and buy real estate, and hopefully you appreciate and you can use that additional equity to you know - to do more stuff.

WARNER: Singili the banker is nodding. Investments by the African Diaspora in ventures back home are on the rise. The PhD student's $20,000, the banker ensures me, is a smarter investment in Tanzania than here in the United States.

SINGILI: I mean, what kinds of returns do they get in here? And what kind of returns they can get back home?

WARNER: What's the answer?

SINGILI: It's a bit higher, higher than whatever someone could be getting in here.

WARNER: Well, more risk, more reward, right?

SINGILI: And no, it would not...

WARNER: I can tell by his stammering answer that the word risk is a forbidden one for an African businessman trying to surmount perceptions of corruption and political instability on his continent.

SINGILI: So it's fine for you to put up some kind of investment, even in our country.

WARNER: Well, that view may be a little bit rose-colored, but American businesses have actually lagged behind pretty considerably in investing in Africa's real growth. So just as at the official White House summit, most of these unofficial shadow events are devoted to drumming up business and drumming up investment in Africa. Tekle Mariam is neither a businessman nor an investor. I meet the 26-year-old Ethiopian activist on a street corner where he's just come he says, from a grim meeting with other human rights workers. Tekle a recent exile, after human rights activity in his home of Ethiopia was effectively made illegal. Now he's getting in a cab to go to the United States Chamber of Commerce.

TEKLE MARIAM: After you.

WARNER: Alright, thank you.

(Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: A cab, I should say, driven by an Ethiopian woman.

: Where are we heading?

WARNER: Riding in the back seat, Tekle tells me he is not opposed to more investment in Africa.

MARIAM: That's an opportunity for Ethiopia, but there has to be some kind of protective mechanism in place.

WARNER: Protective mechanism for minority groups. In Ethiopia he tells me, whole communities have been driven off their land by government soldiers, land then sold, with glossy brochures, to Saudi and Chinese investors. But Tekle, you won't be surprised, has not been invited to any those investment forums to share these concerns - concerns which even our cab driver Rahel Gabregzaher jumps in to echo.

: I've been imprisoned two times and have to feel my country you know, for no reason because you know, I said oh, this is not right, like the way he was saying. The country has to be open for everything, not only for investment from my point of view, you know?

WARNER: African civil society groups posted an open letter to President Obama, saying their human rights priorities have been excluded from a summit focus on trade. So there're in the shadows too. We arrive at the Chamber of Commerce where Tekle has signed himself up to be in the audience of a public event that features the Ethiopian Prime Minister.

MARIAM: And if I've got the chance, I would like to ask some of the fierce questions that needs to be answered here.

WARNER: But Tekle did not get that chance. The public forum took only select questions and the Prime Minister never showed. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Washington.

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