WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's upcoming weeklong trip to Africa will mark his most significant personal investment in the developing region since taking office.
The White House is hoping the return on that investment will be an increased foothold for U.S. businesses on a continent where China and other emerging economies are already major players.
Casting a shadow over Obama's trip will be the health of beloved former South African President Nelson Mandela, who has been hospitalized for two weeks. Family and government officials say the 94-year-old's condition is improving, but the White House said it would defer to Mandela's family for decisions on whether the anti-apartheid leader will be able to meet with Obama.
"We want whatever is in the best interest of his health," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.
Obama's two-day visit to South Africa will be bookended by stops in Senegal and Tanzania. The trip was structured to give Obama a footprint in East, West and South Africa and to highlight stable democracies on a continent where corruption and authoritarian rule are still common.
The president, along with wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha, is scheduled to depart Washington Wednesday morning.
While Obama has devoted significant time to emerging economies in Asia and Latin America, he's spent just one day in sub-Saharan Africa since taking office - a 24-hour visit to Ghana in 2009. Meanwhile, countries like China, Malaysia, Brazil and Turkey have been upping their investments in Africa.
"There are other countries getting in the game," Rhodes said. "If the United States is not leading in Africa, we're going to fall behind in a very important region in the world."
China in particular has poured significant resources into the region in recent years. Official figures from Beijing put China's trade with Africa at nearly $200 billion last year, up from $10 billion in 2000. The rapid increase has been driven largely by Chinese demand for oil and investments in infrastructure, including telecommunications grids.
According to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, U.S. trade with sub-Saharan Africa totaled about $95 billion in 2011.
Despite China's robust investments, African countries increasingly have criticized Beijing for exploiting the continent's mineral wealth and doing little to invest in the local communities. Obama is likely to try to make the case that the U.S. will not only be looking out for its own interests in Africa, but also those of the African people.
"China has a mixed record in Africa but gets criticized for kind of lack of transparency, bringing its own workers, bringing its own materials, not engaging with the communities around them," said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And I think the president will want to make that distinction of why the U.S. is a good partner in this regard."
American business executives and top Obama economic advisers, including newly confirmed U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, will also participate in the trip. Among the president's events will be a CEO and business leader forum in Tanzania.
The president will also spend a significant portion of his trip reaching out to African youth, including a speech at the University of Cape Town. One in three Africans is between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the White House.
Obama's stops in South Africa also include a visit to Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. In Senegal, he'll visit Goree Island and its "Door of No Return," a memorial to the Atlantic slave trade.
Mrs. Obama will also have a full slate of solo appearances in Africa, including a first ladies summit in Tanzania. The event with be hosted by former American first lady Laura Bush, who has been active on women's issues in Africa.