September 22, 2023

FULL TRANSCRIPT: Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and Environment Jose W. Fernandez on US-Africa trade and investment

Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and Environment Jose W. Fernandez
Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and Environment Jose W. Fernandez

Moderator:  Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants from across the continent and thank all of you for taking part in this discussion.  Today, we are very pleased to be joined by Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Jose Fernandez.  He is speaking to us from Cape Town, South Africa.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Under Secretary Fernandez, then we will take your questions.  We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the time that we have. 

If you would like to join the conversation on Twitter, please use the #AFHubPress and follow us on Twitter @AfricaMediaHub.

As a reminder, today’s briefing is on the record, and with that, I will turn it over to Under Secretary Fernandez for his opening remarks.

Under Secretary Fernandez:  Goodafternoon. 

Moderator:  There we go. 

Under Secretary Fernandez:  Good afternoon to all.  Bonjour.  It’s a pleasure to be here to speak to you.  I’m here in South Africa.  I’m here in Cape Town, and I came to give the keynote address at the Invest in Africa Mining Indaba yesterday, and I’ve also been meeting with a number of government officials and companies that are at the conference.  From here, we will go to Zambia, where we will spend a day and a half speaking to also a number of government officials.  I’m meeting President Hichilema and government representatives as well as representatives of the business community, and then we’ll visit a number of sites as well. 

And my message both here and in Zambia is that Africa is a key to achieving some of the most important priorities of the Biden administration.  On climate change, Africa has been a – both has been a victim of global warming.  We’ve seen the – be it encroaching sands, be it droughts, be it some of the floods that we saw here recently in South Africa, as well as its – but it can also be part of the solution.  It has great potential in the renewable energy space and also, it also has great supply of – abundant supply of critical minerals. 

I’m also – we’ll also talk about another priority of the Biden administration, and that is on health.  On COVID, we were very proud to have pledged 1.2 billion vaccines for – to fight the pandemic around the world and delivered almost half of that already.  That’s more vaccine pledged than any other – than all other countries combined.  And we can talk about that.  And also on the HIV/AIDS effort, today I spent the morning at a really inspiring event.  I attended the – an event led by the DREAMS program, which is an event to reduce HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women by addressing HIV as a health – not just as a health issue, but also looking at some of the causes or structural drivers that increase vulnerability among that populations.  And we are very proud of what our PEPFAR program has been able to do in Africa throughout the last two decades, really.  So it was really inspiring to be able to attend that, and I will talk about what we are doing in both Zambia and in South Africa.  We will talk about the pandemic and how we prepare for what we know at some point will come again.

I also want to talk about economic growth, which is part of my portfolio.  We have excellent economic relations with both Zambia and South Africa, but they could be better, and that’s an opportunity that I’m here to promote both with government and with companies.  Our trade with South Africa continues to increase.  It actually – we are now I think the third-largest trading partner for South Africa.  Our two-way trade has increased, from 2020 to 2021 increased by almost 30, 40 percent.  So it’s – all that is going quite well, but it could be better.

So that’s my message.  Again, Africa is key to achieving the most important priorities of the Biden administration, and in a – with a population that is the youngest in the globe and by – and over 60 percent under 25, Africa could also be the future of the world’s economy.  And so that’s part of what I’m trying to do here, to see what we can do to help promote that.  Thank you. 

Moderator:  Thank you, Under Secretary Fernandez.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing: Under Secretary Fernandez’s participation in the Mining Indaba Conference and his upcoming visit to Zambia.

Our first question will go to a journalist who sent a question to us, and that is from Ms. Melody Chikono of the Zimbabwe Independent.  Her question is:  “There is a call to ban coal as a source of energy.  Zimbabwe has large coal deposits.  How feasible is this?”

Under Secretary Fernandez:  Thank you.  Thank you for the question.  Look, coal – a number of African nations are dependent on fossil fuels, and that includes coal.  We have talked about how we – for example, with South Africa we’re talking about promoting renewable – additional investment in renewables.  We think in the future, we need more investment in renewable energy, be it wind, be it solar, be it hydro.  Those industries are – and that, the power from renewables, is becoming more and more affordable around the world.  We realize, though, that this will not be an overnight – will not be an overnight effort, that we need to work with countries both in Africa but elsewhere to wean their dependence on coal and fossil fuels generally.  But we realize that this will not be done overnight.

And so my message is let’s – the U.S. will help you in that transition.  We are now working with a number of countries on the continent, here in South Africa but also with Senegal, with Angola, and with others, to help them as they try to use their solar resources and use their wind resources, which are plentiful.  There’s plenty of that, and I think Africa can be a leader in the renewable energy revolution. 

Moderator:  Thank you.  The next question goes to Ms. Jubiel Zulu from Zambia.  The question is:  “Looking at the mining industry in Zambia, where do you think we can work on to ensure that the country benefits?  What measures need to be implemented?”

Under Secretary Fernandez:  Thank you.  That’s a great question, because something that I have – I tried to make clear in my talk yesterday here at Indaba and part of my message to our government partners on the continent is that there is great interest on the part of American companies to participate, to partner with African governments and African companies in the development of renewable energy – I’m sorry, of mining.  But it’s got to be in a way that benefits communities, that benefits the people, that is transparent.  We are not going to engage in a race to the bottom.  We are going to – we want to participate in a race to the top, and by that I mean by following best practices on transparency, following best practices on the environment, finding, working with communities that oftentimes are – do not benefit from mining, do not feel – they feel the brunt of the worst mining practices and are not consulted.

So we need to follow those best practices, and if countries are willing to do that, we, American companies, could be their best partners – again, in a way that would benefit the population going forward. 

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next we’ll go live to Simon Ateba of Today News Africa.  Mr. Ateba, you may ask your question. 

Question:  Thank you, Marissa Scott, for taking my question and thank you, Under Secretary Fernandez, for doing this briefing.  This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington, D.C.  It seems the U.S. has been [inaudible] China in Africa –

Under Secretary Fernandez:  I’m sorry.

Moderator:  Hey, Simon, your connection –

Question:  What would be [inaudible] on the right thing? 

Moderator:  Okay.  Yeah, Simon, your connection, we’re – you’re going in and out.  So I don’t know if you can move to another space.  I’m going to let you try one more time.  If not we’ll come back to you, okay?  Go ahead and try again, Simon, with your question. 

Question:  Okay.  Thank you.  Can you hear me now? 

Moderator:  Yes, it is better. 

Question:  Okay.  Thank you.  Thank you, Marissa, for taking my question and thank you, Secretary Fernandez, for doing this briefing.  This is Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington.  It seems the U.S. has been trailing China in Africa when it comes to trade and investment, especially in recent years.  And although the U.S. is saying all the right and beautiful things, it doesn’t seem that the U.S. is – that Africa is receiving the deserved attention and partnership when it comes to trade and investment.  But maybe I don’t have enough visibility into it.  Can you tell us exactly how the U.S. is trying to counter China in Africa when it comes to trade and investment?  Thank you.

Under Secretary Fernandez:  Thank you for the question.  Look, let me – we have been – and I mentioned a number of the projects.  Through a number of our efforts – Power Africa, Prosper Africa – we have been partnering with U.S. companies and governments here in Africa to promote renewable energy development on the continent.  We have multi-billion-dollar investments that have taken place in a number of countries.  I mentioned a few yesterday, and we will continue to do that. 

But I think it’s important to also, Simon, I’d like to address the second question that you asked, and that is China.  We – our policy is not to ask our partners to choose between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China.  We’re not doing that.  We believe that we offer an alternative vision for economic development that promotes democratic governance, respect for human rights, and transparency to more sustainably – and we keep talking about the word “sustainable” – more sustainably serve the long-term interests of the people in – here in Africa.  Our focus will always be on strengthening local capacity; creating African jobs, not imported jobs; and working with our partners to promote economic development that’s beneficial, sustainable, and inclusive.

So we do not oppose PRC involvement in the region.  In fact, we welcome sustainable and responsible investment from all nations in the world.  But what we do insist on and what we believe is that what African countries, what African governments want is for all investments, including PRC investments, to respect local laws, local interests, to follow human rights, including worker rights, and protections for the environment.  And the reason we do that is not just because that kind of an investment is the only way you can get to a sustainable investment but also because our companies are not going to engage in the race to the bottom.  They must be able to compete in a race to the top that creates an even playing field, and we will promote entrepreneurship and infrastructure development and capacity-building and fair practices. 

So we do not object to any country’s investment.  We just want to make sure that it follows the highest standards.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next we’ll go to a question from a reporter from our listening party in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.  Huge shout-out to the U.S. embassy there for hosting journalists to attend this briefing.  The question is from Fifi Tangamu of the independent daily newspaper Forum des As out of Kinshasa.  Question is:  “What is the policy of the U.S. Government regarding the mining sector in Africa?”

Under Secretary Fernandez:  We believe – well, first of all, I had an excellent meeting yesterday with your minister of mines.  She was very impressive.  She talked about some of the very things that we are talking about in terms of the need to make sure that mining in her country benefits the people and what she’s doing to promote transparency in the sector. 

We think the mining sector in Africa has huge potential, and we know it because there are a number of African countries that are already very active.  We also know that in the clean energy future, critical minerals will be an important part of the solution and that African nations have a lot of the critical minerals, be it cobalt, manganese, lithium, and others, a lot of the – a lot of the critical minerals that will be needed to power turbines, to power electric batteries.  Just to give you an example, in order for us to meet the goals, the zero-carbon goals that we’ve agreed to in COP26, that the world has agreed to, we need to multiply by six the amount of lithium that’s used in the automobile sector. 

So the need is there.  The supply is there on the part of African nations.  But again, this has to be done in a sustainable way, in an environmentally responsible way, in a transparent way because, otherwise, it will not benefit the people of the host country.  And they will not – they will simply not stand for the abuse that that will create in terms of environmental damage and the like.  So we think the future is bright, but we will continue to advocate for it to be done responsibly and sustainably.

Moderator:  To continue along those lines related to climate change, we’re going to go to a question submitted in the Q&A from Vincent Owino from The East African out of Nairobi, Kenya.  His question is:  “The U.S. and other developed countries or states committed to donating up to $100 billion to African countries to mitigate climate change during COP26 last year.  What has the U.S. done towards this so far, and where specifically have those grants been directed?”

Under Secretary Fernandez:  Thank you for the question.  At COP26, a number of countries agreed that climate change – that we would need to help countries around the world in their climate change adaptation plans.  Many of these countries were not – would not be able to afford what’s required in order for us to reach a common goal.  And it’s a common goal that would benefit us all in terms of reducing the effects of climate change.  And in fact, some of the worst effects are being felt in some of the poorest countries.  So at COP26, we agreed on a $100 billion price tag to – for those efforts.  And I’m proud to say that in the United States, President Biden doubled our commitment from $5.5 to over $11 billion.  And that’s – that is – that is a fact.  That has already been done.  I can’t tell you where those funds have gone, but I know that certainly the commitment on the part of the United States is there in order for us to help countries as they adapt to the – to a carbon-free future.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next, we’ll go back to that listening party in Democratic Republic of Congo, to Gloire Mfemfere from La Prosperite, an independent daily newspaper in Kinshasa.  The question is:  “What can Africans expect in terms of impact from your participation or the participation of the U.S. in the Mining Indaba conference?”

Under Secretary Fernandez:  I hope that my audience and the colleagues that I have met here take away two basic messages.  Number one, the United States is ready to partner and our companies are ready to partner with African governments and African companies to develop mining resources on the continent.  But we will do so – and we will do so – and this is what we think is part of our competitive advantage.  We will do so in a way that’s responsible, that’s respectful, that benefits communities, that avoids the resource curse that we’ve seen happening in some mining countries around the world.  We will do it in a way that benefits the population in those countries.  And we will do that because we will follow the best practices of transparency, best practices on the environment, best practices in corruption.

Moderator:  I’m going to take one more question on our list here, and that question goes to Kemi Osukoya of The Africa Bazaar magazine.  And her question is – the Africa Bazaar – “Your colleague Under Secretary Nuland was just in Morocco, and USTR just led a trade delegation to Kenya.  Can you elaborate on how you’re engaging the American private sector and investors to invest in Africa’s development?  What incentives are you providing to encourage them to invest in Africa?”

Under Secretary Fernandez:   Well, with Morocco, as you know, we have a free trade agreement.  So that is quite helpful.  But more generally, our job is to advise companies of opportunities, be they in mining, be they in trade, be they in infrastructure.  And our message is simple.  We think that our companies can be the best ambassadors for our values.  And those values are the respect for communities, transparency, and environmental – following best practices.

And we will insist on that.  And oftentimes, you will see companies, American companies, not being able to compete because they don’t believe that those values or those standards are being followed in the country.  So what we try to do in order to avoid that is to elevate, do what we can to help countries elevate those standards.  And so our message is there are opportunities in Africa in a number of sectors.  And if you, American companies, are willing to adhere to our best values and the highest standards, we will do what we can to help you. 

And so we have a number of programs in the State Department where we inform companies of these opportunities.  For example, we oftentimes host our ambassadors on calls back to the U.S. with American companies and opportunities in their own countries.  And at the same time, we engage with governments about opportunities.  And it’s in our interest and we think it’s a – it’s both a business opportunity and a strategic imperative for U.S. companies to participate in a market such as an African market that is a young market, it’s a growing market, and will certainly be a principal part of our economic future going forward.

Moderator:  So that’s all the time we have today.  I’m going to ask the Under Secretary if he would give us some closing remarks, and in his remarks if he can talk to tell us if clean energy is a hard sell in Africa and if he could also – just a question from one of our listening party members – what policies have the U.S. put in place to help African countries resist or develop capacity to become resilient against crises like the Russia-Ukraine crisis.  So just as you give your closing remarks, sir, if you could address those things, that would be great.  Over to you, sir, for your closing remarks.

Under Secretary Fernandez:  Thank you.  That’s a lot of questions in one, like good journalists do, so I appreciate that.  Let me talk about what we – what we’re trying to do on – well, I mean, what’s on our mind these days, unfortunately, is the tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine with a brutal, unjustified invasion on the part of Russia.  That’s – one of the fallouts of that is food insecurity.  And Africa, we know that Africa is not immune to that.  They are vulnerable.  At this – Ukrainian farmers cannot farm because they must fight the invader.  Their fields are mined, so they cannot plant.  Even if they can produce wheat, they can’t ship it often because the – because Russia is blocking the Black Sea.

There is – part of the Russian propaganda has been to say that the food insecurity that we’re seeing around the world is caused by the United States.  That could not be further from the truth.  Our sanctions explicitly, in black and white – this is not an opinion.  It’s not a debate.  It’s black-and-white in our sanctions specifically exempt food and fertilizer.  So they do not – do not prevent wheat from getting to Africa and the like.  What is preventing it is Russia’s brutal and murderous invasion of a sovereign nation in violation of every principle that has been dear to us since 1945 and the rules-based order.

So I think we – at the same time, what we’re doing on the food insecurity around the world is we are urging producers, both in the U.S. and abroad, to produce more.  We are – we’ve also urged the World Bank – and I think they are already doing it – to boost food aid in many countries around the world, and President Biden has already announced and we have already contributed over $300 million in humanitarian assistance in the past several weeks.  And in March, he announced that we are prepared to provide more than a billion dollars in new funding towards humanitarian assistance for those affected by the war against Ukraine and its impact.

So I hope that that deals with the consequences of the war.  And again, Africa is not immune to this.  You are feeling the effects just like the rest of the world. 

In terms of the message that I would – I would give is the United States is ready to partner in the mining sector with African governments and African companies and to do so in a way that benefits all, that benefits the people here, is done in a transparent and environmentally sound way, and also that brings the best of our companies to the continent.  And so I look forward to coming back here often, to visiting some of the countries where a number of your journalists are based, and hopefully we can do this more often in the future.

Because, as I said at the beginning, in a country that – in a country whose median age is 19 years of age, that has more than 60 percent of its population below the age of 25, this is an opportunity.  This is a demographic opportunity that the United States and, really, any other country cannot ignore.  And it’s also a – it’s an economic opportunity for companies to create partnerships here.  So it’s a long response to a – to a long question, but I look forward to doing this over again sometime soon.  Thank you.

Moderator:  Thank you so much.  We know that the Under Secretary has another event to get to, so that concludes today’s briefing.  I would like to thank Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and Environment Jose Fernandez for speaking to us today and all of our journalists for participating.  If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at  Thank you.

May 11, 2022

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