Harris, who is traveling with her husband, Doug Emhoff, plans to visit Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia, focusing on economic development, climate change, food security and a rising youth population. She is scheduled to arrive in Accra, Ghana’s capital, on Sunday.
“For too long, the U.S. foreign policy establishment has treated Africa like some kind of extra credit project and not part of the core curriculum," said Michelle Gavin, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former U.S. ambassador to Botswana.
"I see a big effort to change that thinking now. But it takes time.” he added.
In Africa, Harris will be closely watched as the first person of color and the first woman to serve as America's vice president. Her mother was born in India and her father was born in Jamaica; Harris was raised in California.
“Everybody is excited about Kamala Harris,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja, Nigeria. “You can be anything that you can think of — that’s what she represents to many of us.”
A centerpiece of Harris' trip will be a speech in Accra and a visit to Cape Coast Castle, where enslaved Africans were once loaded onto ships for America. Harris also plans to meet with leaders of each country she visits and lay a wreath to commemorate the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania.
Her itinerary also includes several less traditional stops intended to highlight the dynamic future of a continent where the median age is just 19.
Harris plans to visit a recording studio and meet with female entrepreneurs in Accra and stop by a tech incubator in Dar es Salaam. In Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, Harris is expected to meet with business and philanthropic leaders to talk about expanding access to digital and financial systems.
The hope, administration officials said, is to portray Africa as a place for investment, not just aid packages, a theme that Harris emphasized in December during a U.S.-Africa summit in Washington.
“I am an optimist about what lies ahead for Africa and, by extension, for the world because of you — because of your energy, your ambition, and your ability to transform seemingly intractable problems into opportunities," she said. "Simply put your ability to see what can be, unburdened by what has been.”
The trip includes three nights in Ghana, two nights in Tanzania, and one in Zambia before Harris returns to Washington on April 2.
“It’s a trip about supporting reformers,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, co-director of the Africa Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “All three countries have been going through significant challenges and significant changes.”
Ghana faces a debt crisis and high inflation, dragging down an economy that was once among the region’s strongest. It’s also wary about instability from Islamist militants and Russian mercenaries who operate in nations north of Ghana.
Tanzania has its first female president, and she’s lifted bans on opposition parties and rallies. Zambia has made its own changes, such as decriminalizing defamation of the president. However, democratic progress is believed to be fragile in both places.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and first lady Jill Biden have already been to Africa on their own trips. President Joe Biden is expected to go later this year.
Harris will be returning to Zambia for the first time since she visited as a young girl when her maternal grandfather worked there. He was an Indian civil servant who helped with refugee resettlement after Zambia achieved independence from Britain.
Harris writes in her book that “grandpa was one of my favorite people in the world and one of the earliest and most lasting influences in my life.”
The U.S.-Africa summit held in December was the only one since 2014, which was hosted by President Barack Obama. Although Washington's approach to Africa has featured some historic success — for example, President George W. Bush's initiative to fight HIV/AIDS has saved millions of lives — there's also been periods of neglect.
“There’s huge doubt and skepticism about American staying power," said Daniel Russel, a former State Department official who is now at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “They’re very familiar with American promises that peter out and don’t amount to much.”
It's a sharp contrast with China, which has led far-reaching infrastructure projects and expanded telecommunications operations there as well.
John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said this past week that African leaders are “beginning to realize that China is not really their friend.”
“China’s interests in the region are purely selfish, as opposed to the United States," he said. "We are truly committed to trying to help our African friends deal with a spate of challenges.”
Senior administration officials have been careful not to portray Harris’ trip as another move in a geopolitical rivalry, an approach that could alienate African leaders who are wary of taking sides between global superpowers.
Now they wait to see what Harris and the United States can offer over the next week.
“She has a very good reputation in Africa, because of her profile," said Rama Yade, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. "But beyond that, very quickly, the public opinion in the three countries will have expectations.”