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Toyin Umesiri's career path changed three years ago when she returned to her home country of Nigeria for the first time in more than a decade to attend her father's funeral.

While there, she took a "deep dive" into her father's life and learned about his impact on the local community. The stories were enough to make Umesiri -- who was working in a corporate role at Walmart Inc. at the time -- start to evaluate her own life and ambitions.

"It really shook me," Umesiri said. "I was like, 'What are you doing?'"

The experience led Umesiri to begin a new mission of trying to facilitate trade opportunities between the U.S. and Africa. She created a company Nazaru LLC, that helps link U.S. businesses and African stakeholders and is taking a big step to help accelerate discussions this week.

Umesiri has organized the inaugural Trade With Africa Business Summit, a two-day conference that will be held in Bentonville beginning today. The event features about 40 speakers and promises to educate attendees about business opportunities and showcase effective strategies for increasing trade.

According to Umesiri, the African continent remains untapped despite the establishment of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act in 2000. It has helped create some success as U.S. trade with sub-Saharan Africa grew from $28.2 billion in 2001 to $72.3 billion in 2012. But Umesiri said less than 2 percent of U.S. global trade comes from the continent.

She created the forum to place business leaders in the same room with African representatives in hopes of strengthening partnerships outside of political relationships that have been forged in Washington, D.C. Umesiri believes American companies -- not additional governmental policies -- remain key to increasing trade.

She selected Northwest Arkansas because it was an "international hub of business activity" with companies like Walmart, Tyson Foods Inc. and J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc.

"We're not saying it's easy," Umesiri said. "You have to do your due diligence just like anywhere else. But we're saying it's possible. You can do good and make money."

Denise Thomas, director of Africa and Middle East trade desk at the World Trade Center Arkansas, said Umesiri's efforts in linking both sides have been "amazing." She believes the two-day conference will help Arkansas-based companies in attendance better understand the potential business available in areas like agriculture, technology and manufacturing.

"People don't really understand there really is viable opportunity," Thomas said. "I don't think people have a grasp of the potential that's on the continent. The people there want to be progressive and they want to move forward and they want to do business in the United States."

The summit will highlight success stories, including a keynote speech from Scott Ford, chief executive officer of Little Rock-based Westrock Group LLC. The group operates Westrock Coffee Co., which works with 80,000 farmers in countries like Rwanda who grow coffee beans.

The company, according to Umesiri, has increased Rwanda's gross domestic product by 1 percent.

An information session about the development of sustainable agriculture will feature former Tyson CEO Donnie Smith, who is the founder of the African Sustainable Agriculture Project. There are other panels scheduled to discuss health care and technology. Other information sessions will present road maps for exporting and sourcing from Africa.

Umesiri said it's clear that the continent, with a population of 1.1 billion that is expected to double by 2050, offers new markets for U.S.-made products. There also are opportunities for the U.S. to import raw and manufactured African products as well, including clothing and jewelry.

The summit will not signal the end of her efforts in facilitating trade between the countries. Instead, she described it as simply the starting point and is formulating plans to hold a second Trade With Africa Business Summit next year.

"We're not going to solve it overnight, but hopefully it addresses a lot of it," Umesiri said. "It tells people, let's think about Africa commercially and they will start working through it."

Business on 05/10/2018

Print Headline: NW trade forum offers Africa insight

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