Obama promotes US ties on ‘personal’ Kenya visit

President Obama talks about his solar energy scheme at a Nairobi innovation fair. Picture: AFP/Getty
President Obama talks about his solar energy scheme at a Nairobi innovation fair. Picture: AFP/Getty
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PRESIDENT Barack Obama heralded Africa as a continent “on the move” yesterday as he opened a US-sponsored business summit in Kenya, the East African nation where he has deep family ties.

“Africa is one of the fastest growing regions of the world,” Obama said. “People are being lifted out of poverty.”

Obama’s visit to Kenya – the first by a sitting US president – has been highly anticipated in a nation that views him as a son. The president’s late father was born in Kenya and many family members still live here, including his elderly step-grandmother.

“This is personal for me,” Obama said. “There’s a reason why my name is Barack Hussein Obama.”

Much of the president’s visit is focused on boosting business and security ties with Kenya, a growing economy grappling with the threat of terrorism, most notably from the Somalia-based al-Shabab network. Nearly two dozen US lawmakers and 200 American investors have joined Obama on his trip, which also includes a stop in Ethiopia.

At the Global Entrepreneurship Summit yesterday, Obama announced more than $1 billion in new commitments from the US government, banks, foundations and philanthropists. Half of the money will go to support women and young people, who Obama says face bigger obstacles when trying to start businesses.

“If half of your team is not playing, you’ve got a problem,” Obama said, referring to women who are excluded from the formal economy.

Obama hosted the inaugural entrepreneurship summit at the White House in 2010. This year’s conference is the first to be held in sub-Saharan Africa.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who co-hosted the summit with Obama, lamented the fact that security and other challenges, including the 2013 attack on a Nairobi mall, had created a negative reputation for the continent. He said he hoped Obama’s visit would help change the narrative about Kenya and Africa.

“Africa is the world’s newest and most promising frontier of limitless opportunity,” Kenyatta said. “Gone are the days when the only lens to view our continent was one of despair and indignity.”

As the two leaders sat down for a formal meeting at Kenya’s State House, Obama emphasised the need for timetables and concrete plans to make progress for the region. He said the US wants to partner with Africa “not out of charity, but because we see opportunity”.

“What happens in Africa is going to affect the world,” he said.

While in Nairobi, Obama toured an innovation fair highlighting the work of vendors working with his Power Africa initiative, which aims to double sub-Saharan access to electricity. As he perused solar panels and posed for photos, Obama acknowledged concerns that the programme’s progress has been slow, but said it would soon help millions and that building power plants takes time – even in the US.

Obama also placed a wreath at the site of the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi. The president bowed his head for a moment, then studied the names of the victims etched into a brick wall.

Extremists simultaneously attacked the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 7 August, 1998. The Kenya attack killed more than 200 Kenyans and 12 Americans at the embassy. Thousands were injured.

Obama arrived late on Friday and spent the evening catching up with his father’s family. Security was tight in the Kenyan capital, with some of the city’s normally bustling streets closed to traffic and pedestrians during his visit.

There was palpable excitement in Nairobi for the long-awaited visit. US and Kenyan flags lined the main road from the airport and billboards bearing Obama’s picture dotted the city.

Local newspapers marvelled at the massive US Secret Service contingent that accompanies Obama whenever he travels overseas.