President Barack Obama (L) and first lady Michelle Obama (C) are greeted by Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Mkoana-Mashabne after arriving at Waterkloof Air Force Base June 28, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. This is Obama's first official visit to South Africa, where is schedule to hold bilaterial meetings with President Jacob Zuma, host a town hall meeting with students in Soweto Township and visit Robben Island, where former President Nelson Mandela spent some of his 27 years in prison for fighting against apartheid. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As President Barack Obama embarks on the first major trip to Africa of his presidency on Thursday, those of us who have been studying the continent for some time cannot help but understand just how vital this trip is to America’s political and economic future and to the securing of its relationship with the continent which is, without a doubt, on its way to becoming one of the world’s most powerful regions.

In the years since President Obama was first elected in 2008, the world as we know it has changed dramatically. The fortunes of the west have been on the decline, with recurring recessions and economic stagnation, while prosperity in the emerging world – Africa, especially – has been on a steep upward curve.

According to recent statistics released by the International Monetary Fund, Sub-Saharan Africa is now the second fastest growing region in the world behind Asia, and five of the ten fastest growing countries in the world are African. None of the fastest growing economies are, by the way, located in the western hemisphere.

Africa can no longer be ignored

Coupled with a huge youth population and a growing middle class, as well as large and lucrative untapped markets for trade and investment, Africa is not a place that any administration can afford to ignore.

Unfortunately, contrary to what many Africans had expected from the first American president of African descent, President Obama’s sole 24-hour visit to Ghana in 2009 served only to signal that the U.S. had not adequately recognized the rapid turn around that the continent was undergoing.

Comments made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about China’s relationship with Africa on a longer trip to the continent in 2012 were also perceived by many to be condescending and symptomatic of an older, more paternalistic attitude towards the continent and also suggested to Africans that the U.S. was not willing to participate in what was going on in the continent in a new, progressive and meaningful way. Other efforts by the administration have also been criticized as not going far enough and lacking in substance.

As a result, the U.S. has unwittingly allowed its competitor China – now Africa’s largest trading partner – to gain a very deep foothold on the continent, which – considering China’s growing economic and political might – is not something that America wants. To put that in some context, Sino-African trade currently stands at some $200 billion and is expected to increase to $325 billion within the next couple of years while American trade with Africa fell from a high of $104.1 billion in 2008, to $94.3 billion in 2011. In other words, the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do.

Open for business?

On trip to Africa, therefore, President Obama needs to make up for lost time and to demonstrate to African leaders that the U.S. is open for doing business with Africa – and that it can do so better and perhaps more ethically than the Chinese, who have taken an ask-no-questions approach to investing and providing loans which potentially allows human rights and political abuses and violations to go unchecked.

With all that being said, it is worth asking why it is that, out of 54 countries, President Obama has chosen to go to Senegal (West Africa), South Africa and Tanzania (East Africa).