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The state of US trade with Africa as Obama visits

Data: US Census Bureau

US president Barack Obama is in Africa—along with his newly confirmed trade representative—to encourage trade with the continent. There’s plenty of room to grow. Even combined, the nations of Africa are still just the eighth-largest trading partner of the United States.

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Obama’s itinerary includes stops in Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa, three nations with vastly different economies but one thing in common: their trade with the US is growing faster than the rest of Africa.

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US export growth

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After years of decline, the US nearly doubled its imports of Tanzanian goods in 2012. US trade data show the increase came from larger shipments of rubies and gold bullion, which primarily occurred in a single month rather than being distributed throughout the year.

Exports are up 45% over the last five years, but were down 5% from 2011 to 2012 due to smaller imports of grains, fertilizer, and tires. Over the last five years, US exports to Tanzania in every category of good—from weapons to wood—have grown.

The US has never been a big importer of goods from Senegal; the volume in 2012 was only $16.7 million.

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The top imports from Senegal are refined light petroleum and synthetic wig material. US exports to Senegal are much more significant and grew about 25% a year from 2008 to 2011. Though last year Senegalese imports to the US fell 43%. More than half of the decline came from fewer exports of fertilizer and electric generators.

Senegal, however, has continued to import from elsewhere. The country grew its imports 8.9% from 2011 to 2012 with more goods from Nigeria and India and less from France and China.

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South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, is the only country Obama is visiting that has maintained a trade surplus with the United States. It is the US’s second largest trading partner in Africa, after Nigeria.

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US imports from South Africa are falling as exports rise. More than half of the US’s $8.7 billion in 2012 was passenger cars and precious stones and metals. The drop in US imports was a result of a decline in precious metal imports. South Africa has one of the largest mining and refining industries in the world, capable of swinging the balance of South Africa’s trade relationships.

The US grew its top exports to South Africa, automobiles and industrial equipment, by 36% and 20%, respectively, from 2008 to 2012. Huge gains in 2012 of automobile, aircraft, and electronics were offset by fewer exports of grains and refined petroleum.

Five nations make up more than half of all of US trade. Nigeria is the US’s largest trading partner in Africa, but is only 31st among all countries.

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For more coverage of US trade data see our interactive, The state of trade with the United States.

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