You know all about China-Africa dealings, but here are 10 astonishing facts about the US-Africa trade

Feb 16, 2015 12:00 AM

Just five years ago, the value of US imports from Nigeria were worth more than those from South Korea, Russia, the UK or Canada. Even Somalia stars.

GOVERNMENT websites can be boring, but once in a while they do manage to shake themselves from sleep-inducing torpor to give up some surprising facts.

Data from the Maritime Administration division of the US Department of Transportation reveals some unexpected trade information about the US and Africa, including which countries are punching above their weight, those languishing in the doldrums, and others that have seen a rise and dramatic fall in fortunes.

We gleaned ten staggering facts on the US’s waterborne trade with Africa:

1. Five years ago, waterborne cargo imports by the US from Nigeria were worth more than those from South Korea, Russia, the UK or Canada.

In 2010, Nigeria was the United States’ seventh biggest source of imports by value, at $30.4-billion, the majority of it being crude oil whose value was boosted by high global oil prices. 
But the expansion of American extraction of oil from its domestic shale deposits has reduced American demand, hitting Nigeria hard.

In 2013, the value of Nigerian waterborne cargo to the US had fallen by nearly two-thirds to just $11.6 billion, pushing down the country to #22 on the list of US import destinations.

By October 2014, Nigerian crude oil exports to the US had fallen to zero barrels.

2. Even as Nigeria was exporting $30.4 billion worth of cargo to the US, hardly any of it was containerised goods.

In terms of twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) containers, Nigeria exported just 2,262 TEUs in 2010—the year it beat South Korea, Russia, the UK and Canada in the value of its exports to the US. But these countries exported far more containerised goods than Nigeria that year: Russia – 31,993 TEUs; Canada – 46,200; the UK – 164,392 and South Korea – 676,636.

3. In fact, Nigeria’s TEU exports to the US in 2010 were about the same as those from Afghanistan.

By 2013, Afghanistan was actually exporting more containers to the US – 2,892 TEUs of goods like handmade carpets, fruits and nuts and even gemstones, while Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, was pushing out just 1,726.

4. South Africa and Egypt were the top two biggest exporters of containerised cargo from Africa to the US in 2013, while Cote d’Ivoire placed third.

South Africa exported 44,929 TEUs and Egypt 40,130 TEUs, but coming in third is Cote d’Ivoire with 11,026 TEUs. Cocoa makes up the bulk of Cote d’Ivoire’s exports, but the country has a relatively well-developed manufacturing sector. 
According to data from UNCTAD, its level of industrialisation (measured by manufacturing value added per capita, in US dollars), is in the region of much richer African economies like Botswana and Cape Verde. Morocco (7,149 TEUs) and Ghana (6,746 TEUs) are at position four and five respectively on the list of containerised exports to the US.

5. Kenya exported more containers to the US than Venezuela did.

The East African country comes in sixth in container exports from Africa to the US, at 6,598 TEUs in 2013. That’s more than Venezuela, which exported 5,576 TEUs that year. But again, because Venezuela’s main export is crude oil, the overall value of Venezuela’s waterborne exports to the US is nearly 1,000 times that of Kenya – $31.7 billion compared to Kenyan goods worth $386 million.

6. DR Congo’s exports to the US have fallen more than 90% from 2012, due to tough “conflict minerals” legislation.

In 2010, the Central African country exported 918,777 metric tonnes of goods to the US, the bulk being precious minerals such as gold, diamonds, cassiterite, and coltan (used in the manufacture of mobile phones). 
But that year, a stringent new law called the Dodd-Frank law came into force, requiring US buyers to comprehensively report the source of their minerals in order to avoid indirectly supporting conflict and rebel groups. Many buyers were unable to comply with the rigorous demands of the legislation, with the outcome that by 2012, DR Congo exports to the US had fallen precipitously to just 14,763 metric tonnes, a 98% decline. In 2013 exports recovered only very slightly to 23,558 metric tonnes.

7. Sierra Leone, which has diamonds as one of its major exports, was similarly hit hard by the Dodd-Frank legislation.

The country’s exports to the US fell from 875,927 metric tonnes in 2007 to just 20,440 in 2012, recovering slightly to 45,533 in 2013.

8. Somalia exported just seven TEUs to the US in 2013. Incredibly, that’s about the same as Uganda, which also exported seven TEUs in 2013. But Somalia’s containers weighed 98 metric tonnes to Uganda’s 73 metric tonnes. It is a radical improvement from seven years ago, when Somalia exported just two metric tonnes of container goods to the US.

9. Chad’s exports to the US in metric tonnes are more than those from South Africa, Australia or Malaysia.

To be fair, Uganda is landlocked so getting its goods shipped to America is a major logistical hurdle. But looking at Chad, landlocked too, its waterborne exports to the US in metric tonnes – again, crude oil, mostly – weigh in at 3.5 million metric tonnes, more than the tonnage of goods imported from South Africa, Egypt and even Australia, Malaysia or Sweden.

10. The tonnage of Ethiopia, Fiji and Bermuda’s waterborne trade with the US is about the same.

Ethiopia is also landlocked, and its total waterborne trade to the US – imports and exports combined – was just 220,000 metric tonnes in 2013. That’s about the same as the US trade with islands such as Fiji and Bermuda.

But at over 90 million, Ethiopia is Africa’s second largest country by population; Fiji with 881,000 is just under 1% of Ethiopia’s population, while Bermuda is a mere 0.07%.

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