U.S. President Barack Obama celebrates the growth in American economic links with sub-Saharan Africa at a White House reception Wednesday evening as he gets ready to visit Ethiopia and Kenya in the coming days.
Obama last month signed a 10-year extension of the country's main trade authority with Africa - a 15-year effort that boosted U.S.-Africa trade to $73 billion last year, with U.S. exports accounting for slightly more than half of that total.
More than 40 sub-Saharan countries are eligible for trade benefits under the law, through which most imports from Africa enter the United States duty free. Two of the main beneficiaries are oil exporters Angola and Nigeria.
Even as U.S. trade with Africa has grown rapidly, it trails resource-hungry China, now with $200 billion in annual African trade, and the 28-nation European Union with $140 billion.
Obama has made a concerted effort to increase U.S. ties with Africa. Last August, he staged the inaugural U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.
The U.S. says the Africa trade measure supports an estimated 350,000 jobs. As the trade extension advanced in Congress, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and National Security Advisor Susan Rice said it has "provided vital economic opportunities," helping African companies become more competitive and opening the path for more investments in them.
Witney Schneidman, a former U.S. State Department official for African affairs and now a fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution, said this week that the Obama administration has gone far beyond earlier U.S. efforts at improving ties to the continent.
"No administration prior has really engaged the U.S. and the African private sectors seriously and as constructively as this one has," Schneidman said.
Another Brookings analyst, Amadou Sy, said, "When I think about President Obama's relationship with Africa, I think about two words. One is catalytic and the second one is partnership."
Human rights groups have criticized Obama's trip to Ethiopia because of the country's handling of political dissent. He is attending the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in the coming days in Kenya, where his father was born.