The Corporate Council on Africa (CCA) honored 34 African women entrepreneurs who were attending the ninth annual U.S.-Sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum -- better known as the AGOA Forum, named for the African Growth and Opportunity Act -- at a luncheon where they could interact with other business executives interested in expanding trade with Africa. In an interview August 3 with America.gov, Steve Hayes, CCA's president and CEO, called the African Women's Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP) and its affiliation with AGOA "one of the more innovative programs of AGOA in many years. I think it is a very good first step that needs to be expanded to include more women." He said CCA may be taking a more active role in promoting and training African women entrepreneurs as well. Women entrepreneurs and small business "are far more important than we realize," Hayes said. "I think that a lot of your top entrepreneurs in Africa are women -- they are the producers in Africa. This is an acknowledgement of finally recognizing that having African businesswomen's participation is absolutely vital." Hayes was speaking as he surveyed the packed room at a Washington hotel where the women were talking business and networking with each other and with American business executives. WOMEN EXECUTIVES One of those women, Munci Marie Dilu of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who is managing director of Diluton Continental Foods, said the AWEP program puts African women entrepreneurs together with each other and with U.S. counterparts and the U.S. government. She called the program, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, "very informative, and very interesting." Dilu, who buys and sells African coffee and food products, is looking at ways to use modern technology to improve the quality of her products and find new trading opportunities in the United States. "How to improve the quality of food is very important because we are behind in Africa. We want to take back some benefits from this program so that we can exchange knowledge with Americans who are farther along in agribusiness." Dilu was confident that many Americans, and especially African Americans in the United States, would enjoy some of her company's ethnic foods and exotic spices. Conversely, she said she would also like to import U.S. foods into Africa. One big hurdle all entrepreneurs face in Africa as elsewhere, she said, is access to financing. Another entrepreneur, Flotea Geofrey Massawe, founder and managing director of the Marvelous Flotea Company Ltd., said the forum has provided her with a lot of new information about how to run a business. With the AWEP program, she said, women are now "far more involved" in learning how to succeed in business. "We are connected and we are linked" to people with the information and technology and training that women entrepreneurs need. "I have a big chance now of growing my business in terms of buying and selling more" with the American market, she said. Massawe's business produces creative items out of textiles, such as necklaces and jewelry. Mary Anyango Otiang, managing director of Solomar Investment in Kenya, said she wants to learn how to export fresh fruits and vegetables to the United States, much like she does right now to Europe and the Middle East. "There are so many things about AGOA that I did not know. ... It has taught me a lot." Otiang is looking for a U.S. partner to invest with her and said a direct flight from Kenya to the United States would greatly help aid the flow of goods between both countries. Overall, she lamented that "there is a weakness of knowledge about AGOA" in Africa that needs to be corrected. "It was accidental that I learned about AGOA when I went to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Ninety-nine percent of the SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] do not know about AGOA." Assitan Keita Simpara of Mali told America.gov that the AWEP program has been "extremely important. I was especially impressed to learn just how much the U.S. government is doing to bring new business to Africa." Speaking through an interpreter, Simpara, who is general manager and owner of Kissima Industry, said she is confident that her business will be able to export some goods to the United States. "I am working with a wild fruit in my country to produce different cosmetic products such as shampoo, skin creams and other products of that nature." Habibatu Sidi Taleb Ahmed, the founder of Habibatu Enterprises in Mauritania, said she is hoping to export her tie-dyed cloth and accessories to the United States. Ahmed said she has met a lot of people who want to do business with her, but like other women entrepreneurs, she also suffers from a lack of financing. She remains "very optimistic" nonetheless. Sonia Soutonnoma Nikiema of Burkina Faso said she sees AGOA as an opportunity to do business in the United States. A founding member of the Burkinabe Association for the Promotion of Young Girls (ABJPF), Nikiema said her business hopes to export shea butter to the United States for use in cosmetics, food products such as chocolate, and soap. Her business is currently exporting to Europe, but wants to expand into the United States. "We have a lot of capacity, with 4,500 women who can produce shea butter." Heidi Ilse Van Hase, owner and creative director of Casa Anin in Namibia, said her textile and linen business will have to build capacity if it wants to export to the United States under AGOA. "There are very many useful contacts that we have learned about in our program," she said, expressing her hope that this information will help in marketing goods as niche products. "Women have been in business for centuries on a very small scale. ... Now women are becoming stronger and stronger in small enterprises and SMEs, and our governments are realizing that women in business are a very good proposition," she said. When she goes home, she said, "I see it as my mission to concentrate some of my attention [on women in business] and promote AGOA to the businesses that could qualify for export." From Washington, the 34 women entrepreneurs and the AGOA Forum moved to Kansas City, Missouri, for two days of agribusiness networking August 5-6. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was enacted in its original form in 2000 to expand U.S.-sub-Saharan African trade by providing trade preferences to those countries that are making progress in implementing economic, legal and human rights reforms.
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African women entrepreneurs honored at Agoa Forum
Date:7 August 2010
Source:US State Department