Washington (CNN) - With the vast majority of African leaders in town for a White House summit on the future of the continent, former President Bill Clinton said Tuesday that partnering with African business is a "massive opportunity for American business."
Clinton, who moderated the opening panel at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, said that although the conventional wisdom is that Africa needs the United States far more than America needs Africa, the reality is that the U.S. business community "needs this relationship as much or more as Africa and its business community.”
"We are missing the boat," Clinton said. "This is a very important part of our future."
Clinton's comments are part of a concerted effort by U.S. leaders and politicians to court African business and herald the continent's progress at the summit.
President Barack Obama has been at the forefront of that pitch, telling reporters on Friday that "the importance of this for America needs to be understood." He later added that Africa "happens to be one of the continents where America is most popular and people feel a real affinity for our way of life."
The pitch to Africa is more than just an economic relationship with the United States. Obama and other U.S. officials have said the United States needs to help Africa grow and benefit from ongoing progress.
In an opinion-editorial for the McClatchy newspaper group on Tuesday, Obama argued that the United States has a "moral obligation" to support Africa's progress.
Though Obama acknowledged the fact that "millions of Africans still endure the daily misery of grinding poverty, violent conflicts and the injustice of hunger and disease," he wrote that the United States "can’t lose sight of the extraordinary promise of Africa."
"And just as Africa is changing, we need to change the way we think about the continent, put aside old stereotypes and respond to Africans’ desire for a partnership of equals where Africans take the lead in their own development," Obama wrote.
The push comes at a strategically important time for the United States in Africa, given the fact that China has imported massive amounts of oil and minerals from the continent in the past 20 years.
In an interview with The Economist published last week, Obama recognized that fact. This week's conference is partly a pitch to counter China's rising influence.
"My advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they're hiring African workers, number two, that the roads don't just lead from the mine to the port to Shanghai, but that there's an ability for the African governments to shape how this infrastructure is going to benefit them in the long term," Obama told The Economist.
Despite the positive tone of Clinton's opening roundtable – where business leaders heralded the opportunity for investment in Africa – a number of negative narratives also hang over this week’s summit.
Ebola has killed more than 700 people in three African nations: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. World health officials worry that the outbreak of the deadly disease could continue to get worse. Leaders from two nations – Liberia and Sierra Leone – cancelled their trip to Washington because of the health scare.
The Ebola outbreak has affected the conference on a practical level, too: Conference-goers who might have been exposed to the virus in their home country are being screened upon arrival to the United States.
The conference also plans to address growing political extremism on the African continent, where insurgents have overwhelmed some government forces, and created significant barriers to investment.
In addition to Clinton, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will address the conference at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C.
- CNN's Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.