WASHINGTON (AP) — Jill Biden headed for Africa on Tuesday, first stop Namibia, declaring as she departed Washington that she had “a lot to accomplish” during a five-day visit focused on empowering women and young people and addressing food insecurity.
The first lady’s visit to Namibia and Kenya is part of a push by the United States to step up engagement with Africa as a counterweight to China’s influence on the continent.
Biden, who teaches English and writing at a community college, said she dashed home from class with only an hour to spare before she needed to depart on the trip. She headed out a day before her husband gets back from his surprise trip to Ukraine and a scheduled visit to Poland.
“This whole trip will be exciting and we have a lot to accomplish,” she said.
Granddaughter Naomi Biden is accompanying the first lady on the trip.
President Joe Biden told African leaders who came to Washington for a summit last year that the U.S. is “all in” on the continent’s future and announced that he, his wife, the vice president and several members of his Cabinet would travel to Africa this year. He joked that the leaders would get tired of hosting everyone.
Jill Biden will be the third U.S. official to visit Africa this year, following Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
The first lady will highlight issues around women, youth and food insecurity in the Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, that was caused by severe drought and other factors. She will also focus on deepening U.S. relations with the two countries that are hosting her.
She will be the most senior U.S. official to visit Namibia since a brief stop there by Vice President Al Gore in 1996, the White House said.
Through renewed engagement with the countries of Africa, the U.S. aims to catch up with its economic rival, China, which has outpaced the U.S. in terms of trade in some of the 54 nations on the continent, the second most-populous.
Trade between the U.S. and sub-Saharan Africa totaled $44.9 billion in 2021, a 22% increase from 2019. But direct investment fell by 5.3% to $30.3 billion. Trade between Africa and China in 2021 surged to $254 billion, up about 35% as Chinese exports increased to the continent.
Jill Biden is not a stranger to Africa. The trip will be her sixth to the continent, her third time in Kenya and her first visit to Namibia.
It will also be her fourth solo trip abroad in the two years since the president took office.
She traveled to Tokyo in 2021 to cheer Team USA at the delayed Olympic Games.
For Mother’s Day last year, she traveled to Romania and Slovakia to meet with Ukrainian women who fled with their children after Russia’s military invasion. The trip included a clandestine drive across Slovakia’s border a short distance into western Ukraine, where she spent several hours meeting with Olena Zalenska, the wife of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Jill Biden also traveled solo to Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama in 2022.
She has accompanied her husband on trips to Europe and Mexico, where he participated in summit meetings with other world leaders.
During the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in December, the first lady hosted two days of events for the spouses, including her counterparts from Kenya and Namibia.
President Biden is expected to visit Africa later this year, though the White House has not announced his travel dates. He was in Poland on Tuesday following the surprise visit to Ukraine on Monday to meet with Zelenskyy.