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Ugandan Government Eyes Tax on Mobile Data Use

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was criticized this month when he asked the Finance Ministry to find a way to tax social media use, in order to control what he called “gossip” online. Officials have since walked back that characterization, though they say they are pushing ahead with efforts to add a daily tax on mobile data use beginning this July. For VOA, Halima Athumani reports from Kampala.

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US Wireless Carriers T-Mobile, Sprint Announce Merger

The third and fourth biggest U.S. wireless carriers, T-Mobile and Sprint, said Sunday they plan to merge, the third attempt they’ve made to join forces against the country’s two biggest mobile device firms, Verizon and AT&T.

The deal, if it happens this time, calls for T-Mobile to buy Sprint for $26 billion in an all-stock deal.

The combined carrier would have 126 million customers, still third in the pecking order of U.S. wireless carriers, but closer to the top two. Verizon has more than 150 million customers, and AT&T more than 142 million.

The latest agreement caps four years of on-and-off talks between T-Mobile and Sprint. Sprint dropped its bid for T-Mobile more than three years ago after U.S. regulators objected and another proposed merger fell through last November.

The new deal could help the combined companies slash costs to make the new business more competitive with industry leaders. But customers could also pay more for wireless coverage because the combined company may not have to offer as many deals to attract new customers.

U.S. regulators at the Federal Communications Commission are expected to take a close look at the merger’s effects on customers and whether the deal violates antitrust laws.

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Consumers Close Wallets, Trim US 1st Quarter Growth

The U.S. economy likely slowed in the first quarter as growth in consumer spending braked sharply, but the setback is expected to be temporary against the backdrop of a tightening labor market and large fiscal stimulus.

Gross domestic product probably increased at a 2.0 percent annual rate, according to a Reuters survey of economists, also held back by a moderation in business spending on equipment as well as a widening of the trade deficit and decline in investment in homebuilding.

Those factors likely offset an increase in inventories. The economy grew at a 2.9 percent pace in the fourth quarter. The government will publish its snapshot of first-quarter GDP Friday at 8:30 a.m. 

Don’t lose sleep

The anticipated tepid first-quarter growth will, however, probably not be a true reflection of the economy, despite the expected weakness in consumer spending. First-quarter GDP tends to be soft because of a seasonal quirk. The labor market is near full employment and both business and consumer confidence are strong.

“I would not lose sleep over first-quarter GDP, there is the residual seasonality issue,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “Overall the economy is doing very well and will continue to do well this year and into 2019.”

Economists expect growth will accelerate in the second quarter as households start to feel the impact of the Trump administration’s $1.5 trillion income tax package on their paychecks. Lower corporate and individual tax rates as well as increased government spending will likely lift annual economic growth to the administration’s 3 percent target, despite the weak start to the year.

Federal Reserve officials are likely to shrug off weak first-quarter growth. The U.S. central bank raised interest rates last month in a nod to the strong labor market and economy, and forecast at least two rate hikes this year.

Minutes of the March 20-21 meeting published earlier this month showed policymakers “expected that the first-quarter softness would be transitory,” citing “residual seasonality in the data, and more generally to strong economic fundamentals.”

Consumer spending lackluster

Economists estimate that growth in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, braked to below a 1.5 percent rate in the first quarter. That would be the slowest pace in nearly five years and follows the fourth quarter’s robust 4.0 percent growth rate.

Consumer spending in the last quarter was likely held back by delayed tax refunds and impact of tax cuts. Rebuilding and clean-up efforts following hurricanes late last year probably pulled forward spending into the fourth quarter.

“Our new consumer survey found that 37 percent of consumers thought they didn’t get any extra income from the tax cut or did not know what to do with it,” said Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York. “It is possible this means that there is a lag in the consumer response to tax cuts.”

Business spending

Business spending on equipment is forecast to have slowed after double-digit growth in the second half of 2017. The expected cooling in equipment investment partly reflects a fading boost from a recovery in commodity prices. Economists expect a marginal impact on business spending on equipment from rising interest rates and more expensive raw materials.

“While we do not expect rising rates to crush equipment spending, a slowdown nevertheless appears in store,” said Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Higher interest rates will hurt at the margin.”

Investment in homebuilding is forecast to have declined in the first quarter after rebounding in the October-December period. Government spending probably contracted after two straight quarterly increases. Spending is, however, expected to rebound in the second quarter after the U.S. Congress recently approved more government spending.

Trade was likely a drag on GDP growth for a second straight quarter after royalties and broadcast license fees related to the Winter Olympics boosted imports.

With consumer spending slowing, inventories probably accumulated in the first quarter. Inventory investment is expected to have contributed to GDP growth after subtracting 0.53 percentage point in the fourth quarter.

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Amazon Delivers Profits, a $20 Prime Hike, NFL Games

Amazon.com Inc. more than doubled its profit Thursday and predicted strong spring results as the world’s biggest online retailer raised the price for U.S. Prime subscribers, added U.S. football games and touted its cloud services for business.

The results showed the broad strength of the company, which has been expanding far beyond shipping packages, the business that has drawn the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The forecast beat expectations on Wall Street, sending shares up 7 percent to a new record in afterhours trade and adding $8 billion to the net worth of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive and largest shareholder.

Seattle-based Amazon is winning business from older, big box rivals by delivering virtually any product to customers at a low cost, and at times faster than it takes to buy goods from a physical store. It is expanding across industries, too, striking a $130 million deal to stream Thursday night games for the U.S. National Football League online and working to ship groceries to doorsteps from Whole Foods stores nationwide.

Sales jumped 43 percent to $51.0 billion in the quarter, topping estimates of $49.8 billion, according to Thomson Reuters.

Prime now $119

Prime, Amazon’s loyalty club that includes fast shipping, video streaming and other benefits, has been key to Amazon’s strategy. Its more than 100 million members globally spend above average on Amazon.

The company announced Thursday it will increase the yearly price of Prime to $119 from $99 for U.S. members this spring.

The fee hike is expected to add a windfall to Amazon’s subscription revenue, already up 60 percent in the first quarter at $3.1 billion.

“We do feel it’s still the best deal in retail,” Brian Olsavsky, Amazon’s chief financial officer, said on a call with analysts. He said the number of items Prime members can get within two days had grown fivefold since the last price increase four years ago.

Advertising and the cloud

Despite the surge in shopping, Olsavsky gave credit for Amazon’s $1.6 billion profit last quarter to two younger businesses: advertising and Amazon Web Services.

Revenue from third-party sellers paying to promote their products on Amazon.com was an unusually large bright spot during the quarter, with sales in the category, which includes some other items, growing 139 percent to $2.03 billion. This included $560 million from an accounting change.

Amazon Web Services (AWS), which handles data and computing for large enterprises in the cloud, won new business and saw its profit margin expand. It posted a 49 percent rise in sales from a year earlier to $5.44 billion, beating estimates.

Amazon remains the biggest in the space by revenue, and its stock trades at a significant premium to cloud-computing rival Microsoft Corp.

Amazon’s shares have also outperformed the S&P 500, rising 30 percent this year as of Thursday’s market close, compared with the S&P’s less than 1 percent decline.

More workers, spending

Notorious for running on a low profit margin, Amazon has still reaped rewards for shareholders as it has bet on new services like voice-controlled computing and has expanded across continents and industries.

Global headcount was up 60 percent from a year earlier at 563,100 full-time and part-time employees, thanks to a hiring spree and an influx of workers from Whole Foods Market.

The company plans to increase its video content spending this year, Amazon’s Olsavsky said, with a prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” in the works. The third quarter will also see extra spending to prepare for the busy holiday season.

Amazon is working with JPMorgan Chase & Co and Berkshire Hathaway Inc to determine how to cut health costs for hundreds of thousands of their employees.

And it is expanding its retail footprint outside the United States, particularly in India. Amazon’s international operating loss grew 29 percent to $622 million in the first quarter.

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Facebook’s Rise in Profits, Users Shows Resilience 

Facebook Inc. shares rose Wednesday after the social network reported a surprisingly strong 63 percent rise in profit and an increase in users, with no sign that business was hurt by a scandal over the mishandling of personal data.

After easily beating Wall Street expectations, shares traded up 7.1 percent after the bell at $171, paring a month-long decline that began with Facebook’s disclosure in March that consultancy Cambridge Analytica had harvested data belonging to millions of users.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, affecting up to 87 million users and prompting several apologies from Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, generated calls for regulation and for users to leave the social network, but there was no indication advertisers immediately changed their spending.

“Everybody keeps talking about how bad things are for Facebook, but this earnings report to me is very positive, and reiterates that Facebook is fine, and they’ll get through this,” said Daniel Morgan, senior portfolio manager at Synovus Trust Company. His firm holds about 73,000 shares in Facebook.

Facebook’s quarterly profit beat analysts’ estimates, as a 49 percent jump in quarterly revenue outpaced a 39 percent rise in expenses from a year earlier. The mobile ad business grew on a push to add more video content.

Facebook said monthly active users in the first quarter rose to 2.2 billion, up 13 percent from a year earlier and matching expectations, according to Thomson Reuters.

The company reversed last quarter’s decline in the number of daily active users in the United States and Canada, saying it had 185 million users there, up from 184 million in the fourth quarter.

Resilient business model

The results are a bright spot for the world’s largest social network amid months of negative headlines about the company’s handling of personal information, its role in elections and its fueling of violence in developing countries.

Facebook, which generates revenue primarily by selling advertising personalized to its users, has demonstrated for several quarters how resilient its business model can be as long as users keep coming back to scroll through its News Feed and watch its videos.

It is spending to ensure users are not scared away by scandals. Chief Financial Officer David Wehner told analysts on a call that expenses this year would grow between 50 percent and 60 percent, up from a prior range of 45 percent to 60 percent.

Spending on security

Much of Facebook’s ramp-up in spending is for safety and security, Wehner said. The category includes efforts to root out fake accounts, scrub hate speech and take down violent videos.

Facebook said it ended the first quarter with 27,742 employees, up 48 percent from a year earlier.

“So long as profits continue to grow at a rapid rate, investors will accept that higher spending to ensure privacy is warranted,” Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said.

It has been nearly two years since Facebook shares rose 7 percent or more during a trading day. They rose 7.2 percent on April 28, 2016, the day after another first-quarter earnings report.

Net income attributable to Facebook shareholders rose in the first quarter to $4.99 billion, or $1.69 per share, from $3.06 billion, or $1.04 per share, a year earlier.

Analysts on average were expecting a profit of $1.35 per share, according to Thomson Reuters.

Total revenue was $11.97 billion, above the analyst estimate of $11.41 billion.

Some details secret

The company declined to provide some details sought by analysts. It has not shared the revenue generated by Instagram, the photo-sharing app it owns, and it declined to provide details about time spent on Facebook. Facebook also owns the popular smartphone apps Messenger and WhatsApp.

Tighter regulation could make Facebook’s ads less lucrative by reducing the kinds of data it can use to personalize and target ads to users, although Facebook’s size means it could also be well positioned to cope with regulations.

Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google together dominate the internet ad business worldwide. Facebook is expected to take 18 percent of global digital ad revenue this year, compared with Google’s 31 percent, according to research firm eMarketer.

The company said it was increasing the amount of money authorized to repurchase shares by an additional $9 billion. It had initially authorized repurchases up to $6 billion.

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ConocoPhillips Wins $2 Billion Arbitration Against Venezuela

ConocoPhillips says it won a $2 billion arbitration award against Venezuela’s state oil company over the seizure a decade ago of investments in two projects in the OPEC nation.

The award represents the equivalent of more than 20 percent of the cash-strapped Venezuelan government’s foreign currency reserves.

The Houston-based company said in a statement the ruling against PDVSA was made by an international tribunal constituted under the rules of the International Chamber of Commerce.

It said the award is final and binding and that it intends to seek financial recovery of the award to the full extent of the law.

ConocoPhillips is pursuing a separate legal against Venezuela’s government under the auspices of the World Bank’s investment dispute mechanism.

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World Bank Disputes US Audit of Afghan Reconstruction Program

The World Bank has disputed U.S. government findings that billions of dollars of donor funds flowing into Afghanistan are at risk due to lack of oversight and transparency.

The project in question is called Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, or ARTF, and is being administered by the World Bank. It is one of the largest sources of funding to Afghan government operations outside the security sector.

The U.S. has paid about $3 billion of the total $10 billion in direct assistance to Kabul since 2002, making it the largest contributor.

On Wednesday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, released its audit of the project, saying that once the U.S. or any donor provides its contributions to the fund, neither the World Bank nor USAID can account for where and how the funds are being spent.

SIGAR noted in its audit report that the World Bank is unable to accurately measure ARTF sector-level performance.

“Without an accurate, reliable evaluation, the World Bank will be unable to determine the impact the roughly $10 billion in donor funding has had in improving Afghan development,” said the U.S. government watchdog.

SIGAR is tasked with auditing U.S.-funded reconstruction programs and providing recommendations for preventing waste and corruption. In its quarterly reports submitted to the U.S. Congress, the agency has been critical of the mismanagement of reconstruction funds, and it disclosed massive corruption in certain areas, including Afghanistan’s security sector.  

While the World Bank swiftly questioned the report, it welcomed the watchdog’s recommendations an opportunity to strengthen the focus on the fund’s results and accountability.

“Most of the findings, however, are somewhat anecdotal, and do not fully take into account measures taken to improve the reporting on how funds are used,” the Bank noted in a statement sent to the media on Wednesday.

The program focuses on improving and expanding access to health care and education, developing rural infrastructure, and improving farmers’ crops and incomes.

 

“We are proud of the tangible results Afghanistan has achieved with the support of ARTF for Afghans in the past 15 years and continues to deliver,” the World Bank asserted.

The United States has spent about $1 trillion overall to secure and stabilize Afghanistan. Most of the funds have been devoted to creating and training Afghan National Defense and Security Forces so they could tackle the Taliban-led insurgency.

Security has deteriorated in recent years, though, with the insurgents controlling or contesting more than 44 percent of the country.

SIGAR has routinely identified and blamed corrupt practices by Afghan security institutions and forces for battlefield setbacks.

 

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Kenya Economy Seen Rebounding After Election Slowdown

Kenya’s economy is expected to rebound to 5.8 percent growth in 2018 after electoral uncertainty and drought cut last year’s expansion to the lowest level in more than five years, Finance Minister Henry Rotich said Wednesday.

The economy will benefit from increased investment in key areas like manufacturing, farming, housing and health care, he said.

President Uhuru Kenyatta won re-election in November in a second vote after the first in August was annulled by the Supreme Court citing irregularities. Around 100 people, mainly opposition supporters, were killed mainly by police during the prolonged election season.

“Despite the slowdown in 2017 our outlook is bright,” Rotich said at the launch of the annual economic survey. “We expect growth to recover to 5.8 percent in 2018, and over the medium term the growth is projected to increase by more than 7 percent.”

Growth slowed to 4.9 percent last year from a revised 5.9 percent in 2016, the statistics office said.

Kenya’s diversified economy is better able to withstand shocks like the commodity price drop that started in 2014 and hit oil-producing African countries such as Nigeria and Angola.

But its economy was hobbled by a severe drought in the first quarter of last year that was followed by poor rainfall.

The services sector including tourism grew strongly last year and that helped to offset the slowdown in farming and manufacturing, said Zachary Mwangi, director general of the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

Tourism is vital for hard currency and jobs and grew 14.7 percent while earnings surged 20 percent, he said.

In contrast, growth in the agriculture sector, which accounts for close to a third of overall output, slid to 1.6 percent in 2017 from 5.1 percent the year before.

The government says manufacturing is a priority due to its potential to create jobs, and it grew at 0.2 percent last year from 2.7 percent the year before.

Production of cement, sugar and processed milk slid as firms reeled from the impact of the election and high costs.

Rotich said the projected economic rebound is supported by favorable economic fundamentals including inflation, which has dropped to about 4 percent this year.

“The ongoing investments in infrastructure, improved business and factory confidence, and strong private consumption are expected to support growth,” he said.

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US Pecan Growers Seek to Break Out of the Pie Shell

The humble pecan is being rebranded as more than just pie.

 

Pecan growers and suppliers are hoping to sell U.S. consumers on the virtues of North America’s only native nut as a hedge against a potential trade war with China, the pecan’s largest export market.

 

The pecan industry is also trying to crack the fast-growing snack-food industry.

 

The retail value for packaged nuts, seeds and trail mix in the U.S. alone was $5.7 billion in 2012, and is forecast to rise to $7.5 billion by 2022, according to market researcher Euromonitor.

 

The Fort Worth, Texas-based American Pecan Council, formed in the wake of a new federal marketing order that allows the industry to band together and assess fees for research and promotion, is a half-century in the making, said Jim Anthony, 80, the owner of a 14,000-acre pecan farm near Granbury, Texas.

 

Anthony said that regional rivalries and turf wars across the 15-state pecan belt — stretching from the Carolinas to California — made such a union impossible until recently, when demand for pecans exploded in Asian markets.

Until 2007, most U.S. pecans were consumed domestically, according to Daniel Zedan, president of Nature’s Finest Foods, a marketing group. By 2009, China was buying about a third of the U.S. crop.

 

The pecan is the only tree nut indigenous to North America, growers say. Sixteenth-century Spanish explore Cabeza de Vaca wrote about tasting the nut during his encounters with Native American tribes in South Texas. The name is French explorers’ phonetic spelling of the native word “pakan,” meaning hard-shelled nut.

 

Facing growing competition from pecan producers in South Africa, Mexico and Australia, U.S. producers are also riding the wave of the Trump administration’s policies to promote American-made goods.

 

Most American kids grow up with peanut butter but peanuts probably originated in South America. Almonds are native to Asia and pistachios to the Middle East. The pecan council is funding academic research to show that their nuts are just as nutritious.

 

The council on Wednesday will debut a new logo: “American Pecans: The Original Supernut.”

Rodney Myers, who manages operations at Anthony’s pecan farm, credits the pecan’s growing cachet in China and elsewhere in Asia with its association to rustic Americana — “the oilfield, cowboys, the Wild West — they associate all these things with the North American nut,” he said.

 

China earlier this month released a list of American products that could face tariffs in retaliation for proposed U.S. tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods. Fresh and dried nuts — including the pecan — could be slapped with a 15-percent tariff, according to the list. To counter that risk, the pecan council is using some of the $8 million in production-based assessments it’s collected since the marketing order was passed to promote the versatility of the tree nut beyond pecan pie at Thanksgiving.

 

While Chinese demand pushed up prices it also drove away American consumers. By January 2013, prices had dropped 50 percent from their peak in 2011, according to Zedan.

U.S. growers and processers were finally able in 2016 to pass a marketing order to better control pecan production and prices.

 

Authorized by the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937, federal marketing orders help producers and handlers standardize packaging, impose quality control and fund research, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees 28 other fruit, vegetable and specialty marketing orders, in addition to the pecan order.

 

Critics charge that the orders interfere with the price signals of a free, unfettered private market.

 

“What you’ve created instead is a government-sanctioned cartel,” said Daren Bakst, an agricultural policy researcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

 

Before the almond industry passed its own federal marketing order in 1950, fewer almonds than pecans were sold, according to pecan council chair Mike Adams, who cultivates 600 acres of pecan trees near Caldwell, Texas. Now, while almonds appear in everything from cereal to milk substitutes, Adams calls the pecan “the forgotten nut.”

 

“We’re so excited to have an identity, to break out of the pie shell,” said Molly Willis, a member of the council who owns an 80-acre pecan farm in Albany, Georgia, a supplement to her husband’s family’s peanut-processing business.

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Beijing Auto Show Highlights E-cars Designed for China

Volkswagen and Nissan have unveiled electric cars designed for China at a Beijing auto show that highlights the growing importance of Chinese buyers for a technology seen as a key part of the global industry’s future. 

General Motors displayed five all-electric models Wednesday including a concept Buick SUV it says can go 600 kilometers (375 miles) on one charge. Ford and other brands showed off some of the dozens of electric SUVs, sedans and other models they say are planned for China. 

Auto China 2018, the industry’s biggest sales event this year, is overshadowed by mounting trade tensions between Beijing and U.S. President Donald Trump, who has threatened to hike tariffs on Chinese goods including automobiles in a dispute over technology policy. 

The impact on automakers should be small, according to industry analysts, because exports amount to only a few thousand vehicles a year. Those include a GM SUV, the Envision, and Volvo Cars sedans made in China for export to the United States. 

China accounted for half of last year’s global electric car sales, boosted by subsidies and other prodding from communist leaders who want to make their country a center for the emerging technology. 

“The Chinese market is key for the international auto industry and it is key to our success,” VW CEO Herbert Diess said on Tuesday. 

Volkswagen unveiled the E20X, an SUV that is the first model for SOL, an electric brand launched by the German automaker with a Chinese partner. The E20X, promising a 300-kilometer (185-mile) range on one charge, is aimed at the Chinese market’s bargain-priced tiers, where demand is strongest. 

GM, Ford, Daimler AG’s Mercedes unit and other automakers also have announced ventures with local partners to develop models for China that deliver more range at lower prices. 

On Wednesday, Nissan Motor Co. presented its Sylphy Zero Emission, which it said can go 338 kilometers (210 miles) on a charge. The Sylphy is based on Nissan’s Leaf, a version of which is available in China but has sold poorly due to its relatively high price. 

Automakers say they expect electrics to account for 35 to over 50 percent of their China sales by 2025.

First-quarter sales of electrics and gasoline-electric hybrids rose 154 percent over a year earlier to 143,000 units, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. That compares with sales of just under 200,000 for all of last year in the United States, the No. 2 market. 

That trend has been propelled by the ruling Communist Party’s support for the technology. The party is shifting the financial burden to automakers with sales quotas that take effect next year and require them to earn credits by selling electrics or buy them from competitors. 

That increases pressure to transform electrics into a mainstream product that competes on price and features. 

Automakers also displayed dozens of gasoline-powered models from compact sedans to luxurious SUVs. Their popularity is paying for development of electrics, which aren’t expected to become profitable for most producers until sometime in the next decade. 

China’s total sales of SUVs, sedans and minivans reached 24.7 million units last year, compared with 17.2 million for the United States. 

SUVs are the industry’s cash cow. First-quarter sales rose 11.3 percent over a year earlier to 2.6 million, or almost 45 percent of total auto sales, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. 

On Wednesday, Ford displayed its Mondeo Energi plug-in hybrid, its first electric model for China, which went on sale in March. Plans call for Ford and its luxury unit, Lincoln, to release 15 new electrified vehicles by 2025. 

GM plans to launch 10 electrics or hybrids in China from through 2020. 

VW is due to launch 15 electrics and hybrids in the next two to three years as part of a 10 billion euro ($12 billion) development plan announced in November. 

Nissan says it will roll out 20 electrified models in China over the next five years. 

New but fast-growing Chinese auto trail global rivals in traditional gasoline technology but industry analysts say the top Chinese brands are catching up in electrics, a market with no entrenched leaders. 

BYD Auto, the biggest global electric brand by number sold, debuted two hybrid SUVs and an electric concept car. 

The company, which manufactures electric buses at a California factory and exports battery-powered taxis to Europe, also displayed nine other hybrid and plug-in electric models. 

Chery Automobile Co. showed a lineup that included two electric sedans, an SUV and a hatchback, all promising 250 to 400 kilometers (150 to 250 miles) on a charge. They include futuristic features such as internet-linked navigation and smartphone-style dashboard displays. 

“Our focus is not just an EV that runs. It is excellent performance,” Chery CEO Chen Anning said in an interview ahead of the show. 

Electrics are likely to play a leading role as Chery develops plans announced last year to expand to Western Europe, said Chen. He said the company has yet to decide on a timeline. 

Chery was China’s biggest auto exporter last year, selling 108,000 gasoline-powered vehicles abroad, though mostly in developing markets such as Russia and Egypt. 

“We do have a clear intention to bring an EV product as one of our initial offerings” in Europe, Chen said. 

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US Visits to Cuba Plunge Following Trump Measures

A steep drop in U.S. travelers to Cuba after a tightening of travel restrictions by President Donald Trump helped drive a 7 percent slide in foreign visitors to the Caribbean island in the first three months of 2018, Cuban official data showed on Tuesday.

The U.S. restrictions and warning on travel to the Communist-run island were to blame for the lower number of U.S. arrivals from the same period a year ago, the Cuban Tourism Ministry’s commercial director, Michel Bernal, told a news conference in Havana.

Another issue affecting Cuba’s tourism sector is unjustified worries about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma last September, he said, given that the country had long since fixed its tourist installations.

“The total of U.S. clients is only 56.6 percent of what it was in 2017,” Bernal said. The state-run Cuban News Agency published the percentage decline in overall foreign visits separately, citing tourism authorities.

The number of Americans traveling to Cuba surged after former U.S. President Barack Obama reached a landmark detente with then-Cuban President Raul Castro in 2014 and eased travel restrictions while maintaining a ban on tourism.

Increased U.S. arrivals to Havana in particular fostered the rapid growth of the country’s fledgling private sector, with many Cubans rushing to open bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants.

Tourism became one of the few bright spots in an economy struggling with heavy state controls, a difficult market reform process, a decline in aid from ally Venezuela and lower global commodity prices.

But Trump last year made it harder again for individual Americans to travel to Cuba, as part of his tougher stance on the country.

A few months later, his administration issued a warning on travel there because of a mysterious spate of illnesses among U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana.

Cuban officials and many foreign tourism experts maintain Cuba is one of the safest destinations in the world.

The government still hopes the number of foreign visitors will reach the 5 million mark this year, Bernal said. It rose 16.2 percent to a record 4.7 million in 2017.

The number of Cubans living abroad who traveled back to the island jumped 21 percent in the first three months of the year, he said, and was showing steady growth. Other top markets were Russia and Mexico, which grew 32 and 23 percent respectively.

Bernal said Canadians still made up the largest group of visitors to Cuba by far, although he did not give any specifics.

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Commission on Fragile States Says Paradigm Shift Needed to Stabilize Poor Countries

A new report by Britain’s Growth and Development Commission offered a mix of both good and bad news for poor countries: some of the countries in the report have achieved middle income status, and places once plagued by conflict and instability have shown signs of improvement. But the report also notes that the number of people living in what it calls “fragile states” is growing. VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo takes a look at the commissions findings.

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China Tech Firms Pledge to End Sexist Job Ads

Chinese tech firms pledged on Monday to tackle gender bias in recruitment after a rights group said they routinely favored male candidates, luring applicants with the promise of working with “beautiful girls” in job advertisements.

A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report found that major technology companies including Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent had widely used “gender discriminatory job advertisements,” which said men were preferred or specifically barred women applicants.

Some ads promised candidates they would work with “beautiful girls” and “goddesses,” HRW said in a report based on an analysis of 36,000 job posts between 2013 and 2018.

Tencent, which runs China’s most popular messenger app WeChat, apologized for the ads after the HRW report was published on Monday.

“We are sorry they occurred and we will take swift action to ensure they do not happen again,” a Tencent spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

E-commerce giant Alibaba, founded by billionaire Jack Ma, vowed to conduct stricter reviews to ensure its job ads followed workplace equality principles, but refused to say whether the ads singled out in the report were still being used.

“Our track record of not just hiring but promoting women in leadership positions speaks for itself,” said a spokeswoman.

Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of search engine Google, meanwhile said the postings were “isolated instances.”

HRW urged Chinese authorities to take action to end discriminatory hiring practices.

Its report also found nearly one in five ads for Chinese government jobs this year were “men only” or “men preferred.”

“Sexist job ads pander to the antiquated stereotypes that persist within Chinese companies,” HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement.

“These companies pride themselves on being forces of modernity and progress, yet they fall back on such recruitment strategies, which shows how deeply entrenched discrimination against women remains in China,” she added.

China was ranked 100 out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Gender Gap Report, after it said the country’s progress towards gender parity has slowed.

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Luxury Fashion Brands Criticized Over Supply Chain Slavery Risk

Luxury fashion houses Dior, Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana are among the least transparent of the major retailers when it comes to providing information about their supply chains, according to an index ranking commitments to tackle slavery and forced labor.

The index, released on Monday by advocacy group Fashion Revolution, coincided with the fifth anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, where 1,135 garment workers were killed and more than 2,000 were injured.

The collapse of the eight-story building on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka on April 24, 2013 sparked demands for better safety in the world’s second-largest exporter of ready-made garments.

“We want to see the fashion industry respect its producers … to foster dignity, empowerment and justice for the people who make our clothes,” said Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution.

Sportswear giant Adidas and its subsidiary Reebok topped this year’s Fashion Transparency Index, followed by another sporting label Puma and Swedish fashion group H&M.

While many brands indicated a greater willingness to be transparent about their supply chains, the report said more was needed.

None of the 150 retailers scored higher than 60 out of 100, the index said, which assessed factors like company policies, supply chain transparency, and their commitment to improve conditions for factory workers.

“Greater transparency means greater scrutiny and accountability. It means exploitation has fewer places to hide,” said Peter McAllister, head of the Ethical Trading Initiative, a global group that aims to improve labour conditions for workers.

“Unfortunately, many businesses are yet to even start their journey, and for these companies we hope the report will be a much-needed wake up call. They can and must do better,” he said in a statement.

Some of the lowest-ranking firms – including Dior, Dolce & Gabbana and Max Mara, all of which scored zero points on the index, and Chanel and Longchamp, which scored three points apiece – did not respond to requests for comment.

Spanish brand Desigual, which also scored zero points, said all of its suppliers must comply with its code of conduct, which will be published online in the coming weeks.

Suppliers that breach the code are “disqualified to work with Desigual immediately and permanently,” a spokeswoman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an emailed statement.

In the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, nearly 200 clothing brands and retailers from over 20 countries became signatories to the legally-binding Bangladesh Accord.

Accord inspectors have carried out inspections of more than 1,800 factories, identifying over 118,500 fire, electrical and structural hazards, unions said.

“Textile workers across the world are producing our clothes in some of the most dire conditions,” said Danielle McMullan, a researcher at the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, a U.K.-based rights group. “Transparency from brands is a crucial step to improve standards and protect workers.”

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One of Sudan’s Lost Boys Finds a Way to Help Other Refugees

A cup of coffee is a good way for many to start the day. But it can also do far greater good. Manyang Kher, a former Sudanese child refugee – one of the so-called Lost Boys and now a US citizen – is passionate about helping refugees build a brighter future. And he does it with coffee. VOA’s June Soh talked with the founder of a social enterprise, 734 coffee. VOA’s Carol Pearson narrates her report.