MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Today is the final day of the African Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. Delegations from fifty countries attended. Fourteen billion dollars in new deals were announced between U.S. companies and Africa. So why now? Why all this attention to the African continent now? We asked NPR correspondent Gregory Warner to find out.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: I took this why now question to a swanky after-Summit event in downtown D.C. where I found African entrepreneurs mingling with American investors over hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar. And in the VIP lounge, I met G. Wheeler Jr., he manages private equity firm. When I asked him why now Africa? He says well, remember the financial crisis that we had in the U.S. and then in Europe?
G. WHEELER JR.: In the midst of all these financial collapse, you notice that there was no financial collapse in Canada and in Africa.
WARNER: Wheeler is a self-described economic activist. He grew up in Washington protesting apartheid in South Africa and then the genocide in Darfur. But now he's planning a business-class flight to Cameroon to scout out investment ventures.
WHEELER JR.: We're also looking at the fact that right now, unbeknownst to a lot of people within the hotel and hospitality industry, guess what the number one fastest growing market is in the entire world for the development of new hotels? Africa.
WARNER: Africa also has the fasting growing mobile tech sector, the fastest growing middle class - but all these trends have been true for some years. The answer to why now, as in why now all this attention to Africa in the summer of 2014 has more to do with the presidential calendar. President Obama made an extended trip to Africa last year. Here's U.S. commerce secretary Penny Pritzker.
PENNY PRITZKER: What the president first said is I want, you know, my secretary of commerce to lead a trade mission which we did. In May we were in Ghana and Nigeria and what I found is vibrant, thriving economies that are different than what they were 10 years ago.
WARNER: But another side of the why now question is also important - not just why now are U.S. businesses interested in Africa, but why not before? Why are American companies, as we've been hearing all week, playing catch up with China? One four-letter acronym.
OBI MADUBUKO: FCPA is the shorthand - it stands for Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. And essentially it's a U.S. anti-bribery law.
WARNER: Obi Madubuko practices international anti-corruption law as a partner at McDermott, Will and Emery.
MADUBUKO: The penalty for violating the act can be pretty severe.
WARNER: Get caught bribing one petty trade official in rural Guinea, you and your company, according to this U.S. law, could be banned from any contracts with the U.S. government. For a long time the fear of this penalty discouraged U.S. companies from doing business in places where corruption is prevalent.
MADUBUKO: That era is quickly coming to an end.
WARNER: Not just because some African countries have made progress in curbing corruption, but also because anti-bribery laws in Europe are getting more strict. Suddenly the playing field for U.S. companies abroad is leveling, and more young Americans are getting interested in competing.
WARNER: In the lobby of that VIP soiree, I met Adedemola Sokoya - he's a newly-minted Howard graduate in political science and economics. Born in America, but he wants to start his career in the country that his parents fled from - Nigeria.
ADEDEMOLA SOKOYA: Next step, go to law school and eventually start a business that is going to be based in Nigeria but also have roots here.
WARNER: Now, Sokoya is a second-generation African immigrant with obviously grand and very personal ambitions. So when I ask him why now is there so much attention on U.S.-Africa trade, he answers with a question of his own.
SOKOYA: Why now for me or why now for the world? I mean, why now for the world? I wish I could answer your question, I really wish I could.
WARNER: But ultimately this why now question - if all this attention adds up to anything - will depend on this, a critical mass of Americans deciding that the time is right for them to turn their attention to Africa. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.