DHL Freight chief executive Amadou Diallo told an international economic conference on Wednesday that bilingualism and Canada's role in educating many African leaders could help it compete with "extremely hungry" countries like China and India that are anxious to expand their relationships with the continent.
China alone has vowed to double its investment to $400 billion by 2020, including the construction of high-speed rail.
"You should be inspired and determined to tackle those opportunities and I don't think that you see a lot of Canadian entrepreneurs moving around all these markets," Diallo said.
Diallo, himself a native African whose sister studied in Canada, said many Canadian businesses tend to eye opportunities in Asia, but the ability to speak in English and French would boost relationships on a continent where the two languages, along with Portuguese, are spoken most frequently.
He also said too few Canadians are aware of the country's role in training African leaders who are seeking ways to modernize their countries.
"Canada has educated a lot of leaders that are today active, that are changing the leadership in Africa and we need that to be recognized by the Canadians," he said in an interview.
He said Canada's expertise in energy development would be especially welcome since energy is Africa's biggest need. Among the fastest growing African countries is Nigeria, which has big oil reserves and has become part of a major global trade route.
Africans could also benefit from Canada's experience in governance to help steer business and governments. In turn, many African leaders understand the Canadian way of thinking and appreciate the "humble" way Canadians conduct themselves.
And, unlike colonial powers which tend to focus on familiar countries, Canada is seen as neutral and able to understand all cultures.
"I personally see Canadians as humble people and I think it's good to be humble if you want to tackle opportunities in Africa because arrogance doesn't pay," he said.
International Trade Minister Ed Fast said Canada has bilateral trade deals accounting for $73 billion worth of annual trade which it want to see grow.
Ottawa has a "special interest" in negotiating trade deals with many African countries where Canadian companies increasingly have investment interests, Fast said.
On Wednesday, he announced the conclusion of negotiations toward a foreign investment and promotion and protection agreement with Burkina Faso, where Canada is the largest foreign investor.
The treaty is similar to 27 Canada has in the world, including with Benin, Egypt and Tanzania in Africa. It is also negotiating such pacts — which protect Canadian investments abroad — with the African countries of Kenya, Ghana and Tunisia.
Fast will lead his third trade mission to Africa this month, focused on the mining, renewable energy and power sectors.
The minister told the conference that 20 years after the North American Free Trade Agreement, there is a dramatic shift in the balance of the global economy and change in trade flows.
"However what has not changed within the world's economy is the persistent presence of protectionism, which remains one of the most significant and toxic threats to the global economic recovery," he said.
Follow @RossMarowits on Twitter