Young Zimbabwe Entrepreneur Tells Obama That U.S. Sanctions Are Impeding Him

August 6, 2014 - 7:26 AM

US Obama Africa Summit

President Barack Obama speaks at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum, part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014,  in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(CNSNews.com) - Shortly after President Obama announced on Tuesday that he was taking trade with Africa "to the next level," a young man from Zimbabwe asked the president how entrepreneurs like him are supposed to succeed when the Obama administration's sanctions against Zimbabwe get in the way.

"[A]s young Africans, we want to converse with other entities here in the U.S., and if these sanctions are really targeted, then in honest truth, they aren't supposed to hamper the business that we're trying to engage in..."

Obama, noting that the situation in Zimbabwe "is somewhat unique," suggested a meeting:

"So what I'd suggest would be that, you know, we -- we set up a meeting and we find out what kinds of things the young entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe want to do and see if there are ways that we can work with you consistent with the strong message that we send about good governance in Zimbabwe."

In 2001, the United States began imposing targeted sanctions on the government of Zimbabwe, because of what the State Department called its "increasing assault on human rights and the rule of law," and its rebuff of democratic rule. As recently as January 2014, the Obama administration said that its targeted sanctions and travel ban would not be lifted until Zimbabwe embraces "credible, transparent, and lasting democratic reforms."

President Obama's on-stage exchange with 21-year-old Zimbabwean technology entrepreneur Takunda Chingonzo took place at the U.S.-Africa summit in Washington.

"I'm Takunda Chingonzo. I'm a young entrepreneur. I'm 21. I'm from Zimbabwe, and I'm working in the wireless technology space. We're essentially liberating the Internet for Zimbabweans. So..."

Obama interrupted, telling him not to be shy: "And let me just -- this is an example of our young African leaders," the president said. In fact, he -- the youngest, the young African leader, but one thing I will say though, if you're going to promote your business, you gotta make sure to let people know. You know...Just a little tip. You can't be shy, man. Please, go ahead."

"That's correct, Mr. President," Chingonzo continued, explaining that he's trying the create Zimbabwe's first free Internet access, and he reached the point where he needs to  mport technology from the United States:

"And so we were engaging in conversation with these U.S.-based businesses, and the response that we got time and time again was that, 'Unfortunately, we cannot do business with you because you're from Zimbabwe.' And you know, I was shocked, you know. This doesn't make sense.

"And so this is the exact same experience that other new entrepreneurs that are in Zimbabwe have gone through, even through the meetings that I've had here, you know, where you sit down with potential investors, you talk about the project, the outlook, the opportunity, you know, the growth and all that and they're excited. You can see, you know, all systems are firing, right?

"And then I say I'm from Zimbabwe and they look at me and say, 'Young man, this is a good project, very good, very good, but unfortunately, we cannot engage in business with you.'

"And I understand the sanctions that we have -- that are imposed on entities in Zimbabwe -- these are targeted sanctions, right -- but then we have come to a point in time where we as young Africans are failing to, you know, properly engage in business with U.S.-based entities because there hasn't been that clarity. These entities believe that Zimbabwe is under sanctions."

Chingonzo asked Obama what can be done to "try to clarify this" so young entrepreneurs "can effectively develop Africa."

"Well, obviously, the situation in -- in Zimbabwe is somewhat unique," Obama responded.

"The challenge for us in the United States has been how do we balance our desire to help the people of Zimbabwe with what has frankly been a repeated violation of basic democratic practices and human rights inside of Zimbabwe?

"And we think it is very important to send clear signals about how we expect elections to be conducted and governments to be conducted, because if we don't, then all too often, with impunity, the people of those countries can suffer.

"But you're absolutely right that is also has to be balanced with making sure that whatever structures that we put in place with respect to sanctions don't end up punishing the very people inside those countries.

"My immediate suggestion -- and this is a broader point to all the African business who are here as well as the U.S. businesses -- is to make sure that we're using the Department of Commerce and the other U.S. agencies where we can gather groups of entrepreneurs and find out exactly what can be done, what can't be done, what resources are available.

"It may be that you and a group of entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe are able to meet with us and propose certain projects that allow us to say, "This is something that we'll advance as opposed to retard the progress for the Zimbabwean people."

"So what I'd suggest would be that, you know, we -- we set up a meeting and we find out what kinds of things the young entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe want to do and see if there are ways that we can work with you consistent with the strong message that we send about good governance in Zimbabwe."

"I see," the zimbabwean entrepreneur replied. "Yeah, because the -- the -- the point of emphasis really is that as young Africans, we want to converse with other entities here in the U.S., and if these sanctions are really targeted then in honest truth, they aren't supposed to hamper the business that we're trying to engage in..."

Obama told him, "Let's see if we can refine them further, based on some of the things you're -- you're talking about."