The economic contributions of African immigrants in the Twin Cities are greater than previously estimated and deserve more attention from policymakers and mainstream businesses, according to a new study by a local economist.

Both the number of African immigrants and the number of businesses owned by that community are larger than estimated by the Census Bureau, says Bruce Corrie, an economics professor at Concordia University in St. Paul.

Corrie's survey, funded by the McKnight Foundation, found a dynamic system of African entrepreneurs — many of them women — that is becoming an economic force in the metro area.

The collective statewide income of African immigrants is $1.6 billion, the market for African products and services is $281 million and growing, and the strong networks many Africans maintain with friends and family in their home countries should be used to boost Minnesota exports.

"There is strong potential to leverage the global networks of African immigrants to increase Minnesota exports to Africa, currently estimated to be around $250 million," Corrie wrote in his report.

The highest-profile group, Somalis, tend to draw attention because of occasional ties to terrorism rather than the power of its business community. But the Somali-led Karmel Square mall complex just north of Lake Street is in a state of near-constant expansion, with a new parking ramp under construction.

The Census Bureau estimates Minnesota's Somali population at 23,361. But the Minnesota Department of Education reports there are about 15,000 Somali children in the state's schools, which calls the census estimate into question. Somalis themselves refer to their numbers being closer to 100,000.

The buying power of the immigrant African community, including Oromo, Ethiopian, Liberian and Nigerian immigrants, is estimated to be $800 million annually in the Twin Cities, according to the report, with an estimated market for ethnic products and services of just under $300 million.

The survey also said there are between 2,000 and 3,200 African-owned businesses in the state. Almost half of the women surveyed said they want help in starting a business. That statistic is already reflected at Karmel Square, where many of the businesses are owned and led by women.

"It's dominated by women," said Mohamud Abdirahman, of the Minnesota Somali Chamber of Commerce.

Female African entrepreneurs, however, do not find local business development infrastructure to be helpful, according to the report. The most common difficulties are in getting loans and handling regulators and licensing officials.

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz