Here in the United States, we seem to talk an awful lot about helping Africa. But beyond the summits, celebrity spokespeople and sound bites, one of the best tools we have to really drive the continent’s economic development is on the verge of disappearing. Congress must take action immediately to reauthorize the charter of the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

The Ex-Im Bank is the official export-credit agency of the United States, providing credit to American companies so they can export goods and services to customers abroad. It operates at no cost to American citizens and in fact earned $2 billion for the U.S. government over the past five years.

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The Ex-Im Bank is also one of the best “win-wins” in foreign policy. Not only does it support American jobs and companies, it provides critically-needed assistance for infrastructure development in Africa. The Ex-Im Bank, along with fellow development finance agencies like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), supports the kind of U.S. private investment that is a great aid to a continent facing tremendous challenges but showing equally great promise

If there was ever a continent of contrasts, Africa is it. It boasts five of the world’s 12 fastest growing economies, but millions remain entrenched in poverty. Parts of the continent are rich in energy resources like oil and solar power, yet at least 550 million Africans – and two out of three sub-Saharan Africans – lack electricity. According to the World Bank, if you exclude South Africa, the entire installed generation capacity of sub-Saharan Africa is just 28 Gigawatts, roughly equivalent to Argentina’s capacity.

The cost of these contrasts is human and economic. The too-frequent occurrences of epidemic illness, most recently the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, illustrate the impacts of inadequate infrastructure. And the World Bank has found that poor infrastructure depresses firm productivity by around 40 percent. For most countries, it says, “the negative impact of deficient infrastructure [on the economy] is at least as large as that associated with corruption, crime, financial market and red tape constraints.”

I believe that the way we manage energy infrastructure will define this century. With reliable electricity access, the United Nations’ Sustainable Energy for All initiative points out, “children can study after dark. Clinics can store life-saving vaccines. Countries can grow more resilient, competitive economies.”

The Ex-Im Bank has played an important role in addressing these energy infrastructure needs. In fiscal year 2013, it approved 188 deals worth more than $600 million (supporting approximately 205,000 American jobs). According to the bank’s annual report, this included more than $253 million to support U.S. exports to power-generation projects around the globe.

The bank has also committed $5 billion to the Power Africa initiative, an effort introduced by President Obama to double electricity use in sub-Saharan Africa. U.S. Senator Maria CantwellMaria CantwellSenate confirms Trump's nominee for No. 2 Interior post Week ahead: Controversial Interior nominee gets Senate vote Overnight Energy: Exxon sues feds over M fine | Deputy Interior pick advances | Oil concerns hold up Russia sanctions push MORE and I recently co-chaired a dialogue with aid organizations, corporations and representatives of four U.S. agencies charged with shepherding and implementing Power Africa. We see real progress being made.

But absent quick congressional action (the bank’s charter expires at the end of September), American businesses and African citizens will lose what has become a critical lifeline.

Africa’s citizens deserve a first class energy, economic, education and health future. With relatively simple actions like reauthorizing the charters of the Ex-Im Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, we can not only help Africans continue to take steps towards that future, but support our own economy as well.

Mezey is president and CEO of Itron, a Spokane, Wash.-based technology and services company that helps its customers measure, manage and analyze energy and water. Itron and its predecessor companies have been doing business in Africa for nearly 30 years.