In Kenya, Obama Hails Africa’s Growth and Potential


President Obama spoke at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, on Saturday.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

NAIROBI, Kenya — President Obama declared Saturday that “Africa is on the move,” opening his first visit in office to his father’s home country with a testimonial to the continent’s growth and potential and calling on the rest of the world to look beyond “the stereotypes.”

Addressing a summit meeting intended to promote entrepreneurship, Mr. Obama hailed the economic development that has transformed Kenya and other parts of Africa over the last decade. He skirted some of the issues of democracy and human rights that have haunted countries like Kenya, but he was expected to address them later in the day at a news conference.

“Kenya is leading the way,” Mr. Obama said. “When I was here in Nairobi 10 years ago, it looked very different than it does today. The incredible progress that’s been made — imagine what could happen if more and more of our global business leaders and global capital paid a visit and actually had a conversation as opposed to just being blinded by some of the stereotypes that have been promoted. This thing could move even faster.”

The president’s remarks came near the start of a two-day visit that has generated enormous excitement in Kenya, where his father was born and where he still has many relatives. Although Mr. Obama has made three previous visits to Kenya, this was his first since taking office — and the first by any sitting American president — and he was given a rousing welcome.

The Global Entrepreneurship Summit that Mr. Obama addressed was to be followed by a formal arrival ceremony; a meeting with President Uhuru Kenyatta; a visit to a memorial to those killed in the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy here; a joint news conference with Mr. Kenyatta; and, finally, a state dinner in Mr. Obama’s honor.

“I’m proud to be the first U.S. president to visit Kenya and obviously this is personal for me,” Mr. Obama said. “There’s a reason why my name’s Barack Hussein Obama. My father came from these parts. I have family and relatives here. And in my visits over the years, walking the streets of Nairobi, I’ve come to know the warmth and the spirit of the Kenyan people.”

Mr. Obama arrived in Nairobi on Friday night and had dinner with three dozen of his Kenyan relatives, including his half sister, Auma Obama, and his stepgrandmother, known as Mama Sarah, who were brought to Nairobi for the occasion. On previous trips he has visited his late father’s village, but the White House decided that that would not be logistically feasible this time, given the security and media entourage that follows a president.

Indeed, Mr. Obama groused good-naturedly before coming that it would not be as meaningful to visit Kenya while in office, given the constraints on his movement, and his wife and daughters did not join him. But he hoped to make the most of the visit before leaving Sunday afternoon for Ethiopia.

Accompanied by members of Congress and American corporate executives, Mr. Obama led a short panel discussion on business development. He announced that a goal set by the U.S. government at last year’s entrepreneurship summit meeting in Morocco — to raise $1 billion in start-up capital from banks and philanthropists — had been reached.

“The challenge is, as so many of you know, it’s very hard to take those first steps,” he told the businesspeople gathered at the meeting. “It’s hard to access capital. It’s hard to get the training and the skills to run a business as professionally as it needs to be in this competitive world.”

Kenya’s economy has grown in recent years, and the World Bank recently confirmed its status as a lower-middle-income country. Last year, a statistical reassessment of Kenya’s economy found that it was $53.3 billion, 25 percent larger than previously estimated, which would account for more than 2 percent of Africa’s gross domestic product.

Still, more than 40 percent of Kenya’s approximately 45 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, according to the Brookings Institution in Washington.

In his initial remarks Saturday, Mr. Obama said nothing about the security situation here, which has been a major concern for Washington. Kenya has suffered horrific terrorist attacks by the Shabab, the Somalia-based affiliate of Al Qaeda, including the massacre of nearly 150 people at a university in April. The United States has worked with Kenya to counter the threat, and an African Union force that includes Kenyan troops has been pushing Shabab forces out of major cities and towns in Somalia.

Mr. Obama also made no mention of the political troubles in Kenya, whose president, Mr. Kenyatta, and deputy president, William Ruto, were indicted for crimes against humanity, accused of instigating violence after the disputed elections of 2007 that killed more than 1,000. The case against Mr. Kenyatta at the International Criminal Court was dropped for lack of evidence last December, but the charges against Mr. Ruto remain.

Mr. Kenyatta has remained close by Mr. Obama’s side throughout the visit so far. He greeted the president on Friday night at the airport named for his father, Jomo Kenyatta, considered the founder of modern Kenya, and stood over him beaming as the visitor signed a guest book. He was on stage with Mr. Obama at the entrepreneurship event and planned to be with him through the rest of the day’s events.

“Africa is the world’s newest and most promising frontier of limitless opportunity,” Mr. Kenyatta said. “Gone are the days when the only lens to view our continent was one of despair and indignity.”

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