OPPORTUNITY BECKONS IN AFRICA FOR BUSINESS

OPPORTUNITY BECKONS IN AFRICA FOR BUSINESS

Whatever the outcome of President Clinton's Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, that continent, the second largest after Asia with some 700 million potential consumers, will remain one of the biggest growth opportunities for U.S. exporters and investors in the foreseeable future.

It is one that many U.S. entrepreneurs appear reluctant to grasp. Indeed, the U.S. business presence in Africa does not begin to match this country's economic stake in that continent. Consider these facts:

* The Cape of Good Hope controls shipping between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, while the Horn is a potential choke point for traffic between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean.

* U.S. oil imports from Africa - primarily Nigeria - are projected to surpass those from the Persian Gulf region within the next decade.

* The United States relies on Africa as a source of strategic minerals, including platinum, cobalt, bauxite and manganese.

* When U.S. exports to Asia and elsewhere plummeted by almost a third in 1998, a fallout from the global financial crisis that started in 1997, exports to Africa increased 8 percent. American companies shipped 45 percent more to sub-Saharan Africa in 1998 than to all the states of the former Soviet Union combined.

Even so, the U.S. share of the African market is a paltry 7 percent.

The 1998 World Investment Report, published by the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, said U.S. foreign direct investment in Africa has averaged a 29 percent rate of return on book value since 1990. That compares with 14 percent and 12 percent for Asia and Latin America, respectively.

But U.S. foreign direct investment in sub-Saharan Africa fell by about 8.3 percent in 1998 from the previous year, according to a report on U.S.-Africa trade released in November by the U.S. International Trade Commission. That's largely because U.S. entrepreneurs are so star-struck by South Africa that when privatization slowed there they found it hard to turn to opportunities elsewhere on the continent.

Reports of corruption and civil strife notwithstanding, Africa is preparing for far more aggressive participation in the world economy.

Governments are upgrading and expanding seaports, airports, roads and railways; modernizing and adding capacity to telecommunications systems; transferring state-ownership of a range of industries to more efficient private control; energizing their vast small and medium-sized business sectors with greater access to financial and other support in order to render them more competitive; encouraging foreign investment, especially in sectors that would enhance exports.

Officials are working frantically to harmonize trade and transportation rules and to put cross-border transportation networks in place.

''It is regrettable that well over two decades of integration efforts have not yielded a scheduled maritime transportation service on the West Coast to ease cargo movement among the countries,'' Kwabena Duffour, governor of the Bank of Ghana, was reported as saying at a recent seminar for officials of the Economic Community of West African States.

The integration of railway systems will provide haulage capacity of goods at cheaper rates and a more adequate means of travel within the subregion, he contends.

Trade ministers of the Southern African Development Community (Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe) are planning for duty-free trade in the region by February next year.

The 19 member nations of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, or Comesa, have signed off on an open-skies policy for all air freight services within the group. They pledged to liberalize all air transport services by Oct. 1, 2000.

And at a November meeting in Cote d'Ivoire, African ministers responsible for civil aviation signed a provisional agreement calling for liberalization of air transport services throughout the continent.

All this activity has created an inviting environment and myriad opportunities for foreign business - a fact not unnoticed by our biggest rivals on the global trade and investment fronts. Roger Earving, the Clinton administration's senior commercial officer in Africa, notes that the U.S. business presence on the continent ranks third behind that of counterparts in Europe and Asia.

To be sure, big corporations are making big deals in Africa. But the real dynamism is in the community of smaller businesses.

We're looking for ''tomorrow's creative entrepreneurs'' to take on Africa's ''explosive potential,'' Susan E. Rice, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, told listeners when she addressed the Rhodes Scholars Southern Africa Forum at Oxford University in May.

''There are more telephones in Manhattan or central London than in all of Africa,'' she told them. ''Nearly 50 percent of Africans are under the age of 15, young people who can develop fierce brand loyalties for everything from soft drinks to blue jeans.''

Such opportunities will continue to exist no matter what form Washington's Africa policy takes. If U.S. exporters and investors fail to seize them, their counterparts elsewhere certainly will.