US aid agency’s new chief aims to build African ‘hub’ in Washington

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Friday, 11 February 2022 13:48

Travis Adkins (centre)
Travis Adkins (centre), new chief of USADF (twitter @TravisLAdkins)

The new chief of the US African Development Foundation (USADF), which is solely focused on Africa, has spent two decades in government and academia, examining the links between the African-American experience and the continent’s history. In his first in-depth interview since being sworn in on 18 January, Travis Adkins laid out his vision for leveraging that experience to transform the agency into a pre-eminent center for Africa-centric thought in Washington.

“I certainly […] want the USADF to be a hub for Africa, for Africanists, for the African diaspora, for the African diplomatic corps, for US government officials engaged in Africa – that is a big part of my mission,” Adkins tells The Africa Report at his office in downtown Washington. ”Because I want to call people to the efficacy, to the rightness, to the timeliness of this approach, and how in a moment like this, it rises to the top of the things we should be doing.”

For more than four decades, the USADF has been at the vanguard of the ‘trade not aid’ movement in Washington, offering grants and technical assistance to small businesses in Africa’s most marginalised communities.

Adkins calls the agency one of the “best-kept secrets in the US government”, a state of affairs that he hopes to change. As a public-facing executive, he wants USADF to get more attention in Washington and “not be defined by our budget, but by our impact and the relevance of our approach”.

The agency, he says, should be a beacon for “people who are looking for a new and better way for the US to engage with the continent of Africa”.

One of the things we try to do is help people in need regardless of those political circumstances.

“The image of Africa among US citizens, the image of Africa among US business leaders, the image of Africa in the arts and sciences community, the image of Africa in Congress or the executive branch of our government – these are all important things,” he says. “And […] education is a huge part of that.”

Record year

Adkins comes to USADF from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), where he briefly served as head of the Africa bureau under Samantha Power. He was previously the staff director for the US House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa and also worked with an assortment of think tanks, UN agencies and international NGOs. He continues to lecture on African studies at Georgetown University.

His tenure comes after the agency enjoyed a record-breaking 2021 fiscal year, awarding just over $30m via 329 development grants of up to $250,000 to African small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and social entrepreneurs – a 23 % increase over FY 2020. This year promises to be even busier, with Congress looking to appropriate $43m to the agency, $10m more than the Joe Biden administration requested.

The agency currently has grants and partnerships in 21 countries, with a focus on agriculture, energy, and women and youth employment in the Great Lakes, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, home to some of the most persistent development challenges on the continent. The agency operates with 50 staff in Washington – 60 % of whom are minorities – and 17 African staff on the continent.

Key to its success is the ability to secure matching funds from other sources, including other US agencies, corporate social investments and African governments. This fiscal year, the USADF plans to leverage $6.55m from national and sub-national governments in seven African countries, according to its budget request to Congress.

“I would like to deepen our partnerships in countries where we have them,” Adkins says. “I would like to see an expansion of our impact.”

Navigating coups

Achieving that objective means finding ways to work in a particularly unstable part of the world.

The agency says it is proud of its resilient aid model, including its locally hired staff who can access hard-to-reach areas and aren’t evacuated like expats at the first sign of trouble. Its approach has made the agency quite popular on the continent because of its support for what African stakeholders want. “Our people will always be there,” Adkins says.

The proliferation of coups has prompted other US agencies to suspend funding and this gives USADF staying power.

“One of the things we try to do is help people in need regardless of those political circumstances,” Adkins says. “You can imagine, if all of our assistance was dependent on the stability of a government, then there’[d be] a lot fewer people we’d be able to reach and serve.”

Focus on energy

A key focus of the agency’s work is to provide electricity to some of the world’s most underserved communities.

The agency began investing in off-grid energy in collaboration with the USAID-based Power Africa initiative in 2014. Since then, the agency has made over 161 investments worth $13m in enterprises that enable access to energy using solar, wind, hydro, biomass, and biogas technologies in 18 countries.

Having served as a political appointee at USAID, Adkins says he’s well versed in the Biden administration’s key priorities “and where folks want to see things go”, notably in the push for green energy in Africa. He also says the agency is keen to work with Africans to ensure their energy needs are met.

“The global debate between the so-called Global South and the so-called Global North around energy production, and who gets to do what, and what is the history of who, has benefited the most from erosive kinds of energy production in terms of climate and what that means for the world now – these are questions that I’m wrestling with in working in government, engaging with Africans, but also wrestling with in the classroom with my students,” he says.

Leveraging the diaspora

Another key priority for Congress and the Biden administration is leveraging the 47 million-strong African diaspora in the United States, including the estimated 2.5 million foreign-born Africans who arrived voluntarily.

“We have a huge focus on engaging the diaspora and tapping in with them and seeing how we might advance our shared goals together,” says Adkins. “And it’s not something that’s new to us.”

There are some fine lines that we need to walk in terms of how to tap into the diaspora, but also ensure that our assistance maintains, according to our mandate, 100 % African-owned, African-led initiatives.

Since 2020, the agency has partnered with the National Basketball Players Association to jointly fund development projects that NBPA members are interested in. The USADF has also partnered with the Silicon Valley nonprofit African Diaspora Network (AND) and the African Renaissance and Diaspora Network (ARDN), an international non-governmental organisation based in New York, as part of the agency’s efforts to pool capital resources from the diaspora.

US lawmakers have made such efforts a priority. The latest appropriations bill in the House encourages USADF to use its $10m spending boost “to continue partnering with African diaspora entities and individuals in the United States and to allocate $500,000 to support new, collaborative projects between USADF grantees and Africa diaspora communities in order to expand such mutually beneficial and meaningful relationships.”

Adkins says the agency is trying to thread the needle as it pursues its congressionally mandate mission of funding projects on the continent. “There are some fine lines that we need to walk in terms of how to tap into the diaspora,” he says, “but also ensure that our assistance maintains, according to our mandate, 100 % African-owned, African-led initiatives.”

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