By Krista Hughes and Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - African leaders on Tuesday called for a deeper economic relationship with the United States, hailing investment pledges totaling more than $17 billion at a Washington summit as a fresh step in the right direction.
U.S. and African companies and the World Bank pledged new investment in construction, energy and information technology projects in Africa at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum, including several joint ventures between U.S. and African partners.
"The United States is determined to be a partner in Africa's success," President Barack Obama said in a speech at the forum. "A good partner, an equal partner, and a partner for the long term."
The U.S. president also urged African officials to create conditions to support foreign investment and growth.
"Capital is one thing, development programs and projects are one thing, but rule of law, regulatory reforms, good governance, those things matter even more," he said.
African leaders said they were optimistic of becoming full partners in a relationship worth an estimated $85 billion a year in trade flows, as U.S. business leaders eyed opportunities in the region, home to six of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies - even if they might be late to the party.
"We gave it to the Europeans first and to the Chinese later, but today it's wide open for us," said the chief executive of General Electric Co
Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said Africa wanted to move away from a relationship of "aid donor and aid recipient" to one of investment and trade.
Kikwete told the forum that with Obama and senior officials encouraging the business community "to take Africa seriously, I think this time we will make it."
More than 90 U.S. companies participated in the forum, part of a three-day summit which has brought almost 50 African leaders to the U.S. capital, including Chevron Corp
Many already have a foothold in the region, which is expected to have a larger work force than China or India by 2040 and boasts the world's fastest-growing middle class, supporting demand for consumable goods.
WORKING AS PARTNERS
The Coca-Cola Co
Still, Aliko Dangote, the president of Nigeria's Dangote Group, whose operations include cement making, flour milling and sugar refining, said nothing works without adequate power.
Dangote signed an agreement to jointly invest $5 billion in energy projects in sub-Saharan Africa with Blackstone Group
The World Bank, which committed $5 billion to support electricity generation, estimates that one in three Africans, or 600 million people, lack access to electricity despite rapid economic growth expected to top 5 percent in 2015 and 2016.
Obama took part in a discussion with CEOs and government leaders at the event, also attended by U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker as well as former President Bill Clinton and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"These deals and investments demonstrate that the time is ripe to work together as partners, in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect - to raise living standards in all of our nations and to address the challenges that impede our ability to develop closer economic bonds," Pritzker said.
African telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim encouraged U.S. businesses to invest in Africa and make money but also said they should "pay their taxes."
In the evening the African leaders joined Obama and his wife Michelle at a lavish dinner at the White House, where the president referred to his family ties to the continent.
“I stand before you as the President of the United States and a proud American. I also stand before you as the son of a man from Africa,” Obama said to applause. "The blood of Africa runs through our family, and so for us the bonds between our countries, our continents, are deeply personal."
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Elvina Nawaguna, Rebecca Elliott, Mark Felsenthal and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Ken Wills)