The top US trade official said renewing the nation’s preferential access program for African products without changes counters the Biden administration’s objectives in global commerce. 

“I think copy-paste is to really lose an important opportunity,” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said Friday. “The world is really different from when AGOA was first created. Africa is very different,” she said, referring to the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. 

AGOA was enacted in 2000 and has since been at the core of US trade and investment policy with sub-Saharan Africa, giving about three dozen nations duty-free access to the world’s biggest economy. In December, US and African trade officials agreed that the program’s current iteration — which expires in 2025 — needs updating and stronger implementation.  

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai

South Africa, which has asked the US to consider an early extension of AGOA, will host a forum on the program from Nov. 2-4. Some US lawmakers have pushed the Biden administration to review the nation’s access to AGOA amid frustration over the country’s non-aligned position toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and because they deem it too developed to qualify.

“We’re on a timeline - you’ve got to reform, you’ve got to update while the world is changing,” Tai said in response to questions at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There are really important opportunities for us to explore and to try to capture,” she said. 

Tai said the African Continental Free Trade Area, which would be the world’s biggest free-trade zone by area when it becomes fully operational by 2030 is “something we should try to figure out how to incorporate.”

Speaking at the same event, World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was born in Nigeria, said African nations would like to see an AGOA agreement that is “at least a decade out” to create predictability for investors. 

“What they’re hearing from investors is that, with this up in the air, they can’t make up their minds whether to invest or not, because they don’t know what will happen,” she said. “If we can reform and get it done, and people can have a predictable time horizon for AGOA, it would really help.”