Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, August 20, 2012

Omoluabi improves trade climate in West Africa

Ometere Omoluabi

Ometere Omoluabi helps West African companies and governments overcome barriers to free trade.

Based in Accra, Ghana, the 2008 alum serves as a liaison between the public and private sector to improve the trade and business climate for 15 countries that agreed in 1990 to duty-free trade. "The agreement has not been fulfilled, and contributes to huge costs of doing business across West Africa," says Omoluabi, who is a business environment advisor for CARANA Corporation, a private consulting firm working under contract for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

During her four years with the company, Omoluabi has learned a lot about trade regulations, the World Trade Organization, customs regimes, road transport and advocacy. "My focus is on harmonizing trade procedures across the 15 West African countries," says Omoluabi, who has a Master of International Public Affairs. "I work directly with companies in manufacturing, logistics and transport to understand their costs and propose recommendations to governments on how to reduce those costs, increase efficiency and streamline procedures. Higher costs incurred means less trade."

A large part of her first couple of years with CARANA was co-authoring a nine-country gap analysis for the Economic Community of West African States. The study, Gap Analysis of the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme, analyzes priority areas for trade improvements in implementation and policy change. "It was a 1.5-year process, collecting firsthand information from people in public and private sector," Omoluabi says, "and calls on governments to act on very specific trade issues."

Omoluabi also manages relationships within government agencies – ministries of finance, trade and international affairs. "I also spend a lot of time on budgets, work flow management, grant proposals, contracts and recruiting consultants," she says, adding that she learned about CARANA from her mentor, 1980 La Follette alum Anthony Carroll, vice president and managing director of Manchester Trade Ltd., one of Washington, D.C.'s premier international trade and business consulting groups. Omoluabi encourages students to take advantage of the school's alumni network.

She started at CARANA as an intern in its Arlington, Virginia, office and three months later was hired permanently to provide research support to finance and agricultural projects. She headed to Ghana in June 2009 after joining the joined the USAID West Africa Trade Hub, the largest regional project focused on trade and economic development financed by the U.S. government. "The Trade Hub team covers 21 countries in West and Central Africa," says Omoluabi, who is fluent in English and French. "My current work in trade policy covers 15 of those countries, in Anglophone and Francophone West Africa."

Omoluabi notes that her experience with CARANA reinforces the importance of internships, even if a public affairs student takes one after graduation. "I have since added on more responsibilities within the same company and currently have managerial responsibilities," she says. "Realizing tough economic times, it is important for students to know that the job market may not offer you your dream job upon graduation, but the skills acquired at La Follette will pay off in the near future."

She says her La Follette School training has been invaluable. "The most valuable skills I learned from La Follette were in policy analysis, using knowledge from micro- and macroeconomics and statistics," says Omoluabi, who had a project assistantship during her second year at La Follette for which she connected international university students with middle school students as part of a cultural exposure program. "I also value the flexibility I had at La Follette to explore courses in other departments and areas of interest, e.g., in agriculture and at the business school. At La Follette, you can be sure that you will focus on developing skills in public policy and still have the room to pursue your own interests."

"In my current work, the research skills from La Follette have paid off immensely," she adds. "The experience working on a professional policy paper during the capstone project helped me shape my thoughts on how to approach my first on-the-job publication on the Free Trade Area in West Africa. Although my capstone group focused on improving primary education in Bangladesh, the experience and the skills I gained through the process are invaluable."

When Omoluabi started at La Follette a year after finishing her bachelor's degree in agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, she knew she wanted to work in international development, with a focus on economic issues. "I saw myself working in agricultural projects or with a non-profit, doing field work, after graduation," she says. "Although my current job is not terribly distant from my expectations, the greatest surprise is that I ended up in a private company, but working with government regulations and funding. It creates an interesting mix that also broadens your experience in project management, working to improve the livelihood of people, yet meeting targets and goals set by consulting contracts."

"The biggest surprise to me is that Menzie Chinn's course on international financial regulation has become the most relevant to my work in West Africa," she says. "While taking the course at La Follette, I found it interesting, but different from my agriculture interests, but now, I can only be thankful I had that background in international trade."

Reducing the cost of doing business and making technical trade rules and procedures easier to understand helps West African nations expand trade opportunities. "In the developing world, doing business smarter, can contribute significantly to poverty reduction," she says. "Public service is rewarding, knowing that your work has a direct impact on people."

— article last updated August 21, 2012