Dear President Trump: Pick us!

On behalf of Rwanda, I would like to make the case for a free-trade agreement between our two countries.

Last month, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer offered that the United States soon would launch bilateral trade negotiations with a country in Africa.

“Personally, I think that before very long we’re going to have to pick out an African country, properly selected, and enter into a free-trade agreement,” he said on Sirius XM radio. “And then that will, if done properly, become a model for these other countries.”

USTR Lighthizer added that the White House is “very, very much focused on” Africa, and that it would like to improve trade ties with “the more stable parts of Africa.”

I’m all for a trade agreement with Rwanda, where I grow coffee on 25 acres and process it for customers around the world. Anyone who has bought coffee from Costco and Starbucks possibly have tasted the products of my farm.

Rwanda is one of the great success stories of Africa. Although we went through a period of turmoil in the 1990s, we have come back strong. A 2018 report from the World Bank ranks us #1 for doing business on the African mainland. Last year’s Gallup Global Law and Order Report named us the second-safest country in Africa. Other studies found that we’re second in competitiveness and third in resistance to corruption.

We speak English and French here. Our capital, Kigali, is famous for its cleanliness.

Munyura during the 2016 Global Farmer Roundtable

Two-way trade between the United States and Rwanda was worth about $100 million in 2016, according to the latest figures from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. In fact, Rwandans bought more from Americans than Americans bought from Rwandans.

We purchased aircraft, machinery, and medical supplies from the United States. Our purchasing power is on the rise, too: Rwanda’s economy has grown at an average rate of 7 percent for the last 10 years. As we gain wealth, more of us enter the middle class and look abroad for goods and services. The United States is in an excellent position to take advantage.

On our end, we produce many products that Americans want, such as coffee. Our Arabica beans, grown in volcanic soil at high altitudes, are known for their fruity aroma, bright acidity, and full body. We also export tea, flowers, and macadamia nuts. Rwandans are becoming increasingly involved in information technology, too, which means that we may be able to help the competitiveness of American companies. And as a tourism destination, from volcanoes and mountains to inland lakes, Rwanda is the place to see mountain gorillas and primates in their natural environment.

In recent years, Rwandans have learned about the value of economic opportunity. A generation ago, foreign aid made up most of our government’s budget.  And we were thankful for the support from foreign countries. Today, however, this figure has dwindled to 17 percent.

Like many Rwandans, I’d like to see it vanish to nothing. The best way for us to do this is to replace aid with trade and become fully integrated with the global economy.

Many wealthy countries view foreign-aid programs as charity: They give us money because they pity us. Yet foreign aid hasn’t made us rich. After decades of it, and billions of dollars, sub-Saharan Africa remains poor.

We need a hand-up, not a handout. The greatest gift the United States can give us is a bilateral trade agreement.

Except that’s not the right way to look at it. A good bilateral trade agreement shouldn’t involve pity or charity, but rather the economic self-interest of both countries.

This is the ultimate reason why the United States should trade with Rwanda: It will benefit American producers and consumers, and also help Americans penetrate a relatively untapped market in sub-Saharan Africa.

Right now, the United States has bilateral trade agreements with a dozen countries. Adding multilateral trade agreements, such as NAFTA (with Canada and Mexico) and CAFTA (with Central American nations), the United States has deals with 20 countries.  Only one of them is in Africa (Morocco) and none are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Last week, Rwanda was one of 44 nations in the 55-nation African Union that gathered in Kigali to sign the African Continental Free Trade Act (AfCFTA) pact, removing tariffs on 90 percent of goods traveling between African countries.

Several sub-Saharan countries (including Rwanda) participate in the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which grants limited access to U.S. markets, but this is not the same thing as a trade agreement.  A US – Rwanda bilateral trade agreement would offer a possibility of expanding trade agreements later to Africa in general.

And that’s what we both need and want: Better trade ties between Rwandans and Americans.

So please, Mr. President, give Rwanda a good look. We’re a great place for Americans to do business.

This first appeared Mar 26 at The Hill.