Will Obama's Kenya Trip Salvage His 'Power Africa' Legacy?

President Obama is visiting Kenya and Ethiopia this weekend to "build on the success of the August 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit," as well as "accelerate economic growth, strengthen democratic institutions, and improve security," according to the White House.

It could also help Obama's African legacy.

"The legacy of the Obama administration in Africa is very much a work in progress," notes the January Brookings Institute's Foresight Africa report, noting the coming months "will determine whether President Obama will fulfill the tremendous promise of his presidency" concerning U.S. policy toward the region.

Except for a July 2009 speech in Ghana, Obama all but snubbed sub-Saharan Africa during his first term. But starting in June 2012 with establishment of the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa and the U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative, Obama began sealing his African legacy.

During Obama's summer 2013 African trip, he launched the Power Africa and Trade Africa initiatives, followed by a December trip for the funeral of Nelson Mandela.

And last summer, Obama hosted the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.

Obama will now co-host the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta this weekend.

But with so much focus on the U.S. commitment to African energy and economic development through Power Africa and Trade Africa, Obama's choice of attending this minor event over other major economic summits scheduled in the region might seem a bit odd.

The administration's Trade Africa strategy is focused on the fast growing East African Community (EAC) of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. And Kenya -- East Africa's biggest economy -- is often touted as one of Africa's success stories.

In fact, Africa as a whole is the world's second-fastest growing economic region, according to African Development Bank.

"By 2025, if current growth trajectories continue, three out of every five African countries will be middle income," according to the Brookings Foresight Africa report.

And with this growing middle class comes a demand for more goods and services -- a major draw for businesses and investors. To tap this market, U.S. Trade officials announced in February a five-year, $64 million Trade and Investment Hub in East Africa.

But attracting foreign businesses continues to challenge Kenya due to decades of political turbulence and terrorism spilling over from Somalia.

Following the July 7 al-Shabaab attack in northeastern Kenya that killed 14, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said: "At this point, I don't envision the security situation dictating a change in the president's schedule."

A week later, the State Department issued a travel alert warning Americans attending the Entrepreneurship Summit could make easy targets.

Though the official reason for Obama's visit is the Entrepreneurship Summit, U.S. military activity in the region seems to have set the tone for Obama's trip, including the U.S. drone strike against al-Shabab in Somalia on July 15.

Washington has spent nearly $1 billion funding the African Union Mission in Somalia and will spend $100 million on anti-terrorism efforts in Kenya this year alone, Sec. of State John Kerry announced during his May trip to Nairobi.

It could be U.S. interests now include Kenya's plans for its recent oil and gas discoveries after the World Bank pledged $600 million in October for the proposed Uganda-Kenya Crude Oil Pipeline to the Port of Lamu for export.

"Just as the United States has long been entangled in the energy security of the Middle East, it must now pay more attention to parts of sub-Saharan Africa," writes Morgan Bazilian in the March/April 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs.

But while security may be the gist of Obama's trip, energy development is what's needed most in the region and is one of the pillars of Obama's Africa policy legacy. Less than 620 million of sub-Saharan Africa's 1 billion people have access to electricity. Kenya currently provides electricity to only about 23 percent of its population (for Ethiopia, its 26 percent), causing local businesses to be less competitive. This growing power gap is diminishing the region's growth by 2 to 4 percent a year, according to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's June 5 Africa Progress Panel Report, which calls for a "ten-fold increase in power generation to provide all Africans with access to electricity by 2030."

Bolstered by the UN's Green Economy Assessment Report estimating a Kenya "green economy" could produce $45 billion in benefits by 2030, the country is ramping-up its renewable energy efforts. In February, Kenya opened one of the world's largest geothermal power plants and on July 2, President Kenyatta attended ground-breaking of the $700-million Lake Turkana Wind Power project just as Germany's Development Bank announced financing for the even larger Meru Wind Farm.

When Lake Turkana was struggling last year for financing, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) - the U.S. government's development finance institution - announced it had approved $250 million for the wind farm as part of Power Africa.

But the catch was the government funds could only be used if U.S. private investors get on board.

Enter Google, which had invested $12 million in South Africa's Jasper Solar Project in 2013. With offices in Nairobi, the tech firm hinted last month it may invest in the Lake Turkana project. If the deal is cut soon, Google's involvement could unlock the OPIC funds and Obama gets to announce a Power Africa success in Kenya.

So with all this perceived preferential attention from Power Africa, why are nearly 80 percent of Kenyans and Ethiopians still without power?

What Power Africa's initial game plan for expanding the electric grid and large power plants did not take into account is that with so many people in sub-Saharan Africa living without electricity in very remote areas, even a large expansion of the continent's power grid would not help most of them anytime soon, if ever. In fact, Africa is leapfrogging Power Africa's centralized power business model and moving directly to decentralized energy in remote regions using pay-as-you-go solar start-ups like M-Kopa and Azuri Technologies. This follows what Africa did by skipping traditional land-line telephone infrastructure and jumping straight to cell phones.

Interestingly, the Kenyan government announced on Wednesday -- just prior to Obama's trip -- it had received $262 million from the World Bank for countrywide electricity connections to "achieve universal access by the year 2020." According to the World Bank, "over 630,000 Kenyans will benefit."

Obama's "Year of Africa" or Missed Opportunities?

In this context of energy development, Obama's trip could well have been huge on the world stage -- and to his African legacy.

The World Energy Council designated 2015 as the "Year of Africa," suggesting: "Clear sustainable energy policies for Africa are crucial for it to move ahead." The Council's 2015 World Energy Issues Monitor report notes that among the key issues is access to capital, and this is a landmark year for African summits seeking international financing that support sustainable energy development.

And this is what makes Obama's choice and timing for his last important legacy-building trip seem minor compared to his other choices.

The president already missed June's World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, and the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development in Ethiopia.

World leaders met again last week in Ethiopia for the Third International Conference on Financing for Development. There, Obama could have met with Kenya's president and Ethiopia's Prime Minister, as well as some 50 Heads of State and 100 Ministers of Finance.

On the other hand, Obama could have waited to tap major economic leaders later this year.

The Corporate Council on Africa -- Washington's designated private sector coordinator for Power Africa and Trade Africa -- is hosting their 10th U.S.-Africa Business Summit in Ethiopia in November. Or Obama could wait until December to trace his roots back to Kenya while dropping in on the World Trade Organization's 10th Ministerial Conference in Nairobi.

But Obama's legacy also hinges on just keeping current African programs going in Washington.

The White House did gain a 10-year extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act last month to provide duty-free access to U.S. markets.

Now the White House needs passage of the Electrify Africa Act to ensure Power Africa survives after Obama leaves office and authorize continued operation of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) through 2018; OPIC's charter expires September 30 despite announcing $1.5 billion over "the next five years" in support of Power Africa.

And the re-authorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank is in doubt since it's charter was allowed to expire June 31. With Africa home to 7 out of 10 of the world's fastest-growing markets, U.S. firms want access to the $3 billion Ex-Im pledged last summer to support exports over the "next two fiscal years." In fact, loss of the Bank has some major U.S. companies looking to export nuclear power technology to South Africa and Nigeria upset they may lose access to loan guarantees.

Ironically, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker just appointed 15 private sector leaders in November to the newly formed President's Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa, which held it's first meeting April 8.

All this drama is taking place in the shadow of China overtaking the U.S. as Africa's largest trading partner in 2009, forcing Washington to play catch-up. In fact, the Chinese recently announced a $400 billion goal in African bilateral trade by 2020. By contrast, U.S. trade with Africa totaled $86 billion in 2013.

China, as well as Japan and South Korea, established firm footholds in Kenya by agreeing to support major infrastructure and energy projects without U.S.-style political strings attached.

"Many governments love the Chinese ... you get a lot of grants and promises and you don't get any talk about human rights," says Jennifer Cooke, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Africa program.

The Export-Import Bank of China recently announced it was financing a large solar plant as part of a $5 billion investment in Kenya that includes oil pipelines and a railway linking Nairobi to the coastal city of Mombasa. And at last month's African Union Summit, China's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs delivered a message of solidarity from Chinese President Xi Jinping, reiterating China's support of a high speed train project to connect Africa's capital cities, and of Africa having a permanent member on the UN Security Council.

That's a pretty high bar for Obama's upcoming fourth African trip, especially when Power Africa has been no silver bullet to eradicate energy poverty.

"In some ways, people -- and I think the White House too -- thinks [Power Africa] will be President Obama's big development legacy initiative in Africa," says Cooke. "It's just not clear to me how much traction and excitement and impact it's having so far."

If this really is Obama's "last call" to engage Africa on substantive issues -- and to firm-up an African legacy for his presidency, it needs to be a trip that focuses on what the African people need and are concerned about most.

And that doesn't seem to be military aid or selling them U.S. stuff.

In a July 14 Pew Research Center survey, 59 percent of Africans said climate change ranked above economic instability, cyber attacks and ISIS as their biggest concern, including 59 percent in Ethiopia and 58 percent in Kenya.