African women exporters networking to overcome obstacles, build business

Tuesday, September 7 2010

Joe Lamport
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the launch of the new AWEP initiative
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the launch of the new AWEP initiative.
About 25 years ago, Felicite Yameogo began working with women’s groups that make shea butter in Burkina Faso with a vision to start her own company. She had learned business management at university in Cote d’Ivoire and she saw the opportunity upon her return to Burkina. 
 
But she did not start in shea at first. Her first business involved making uniforms for Burkina’s national guard and other services.
 
“Shea was more interesting,” she said. “This was something we make here, and I thought we should be producing shea products ourselves rather than using imported products. I had these ideas and I know it seemed odd to people at first. They didn’t think it would work.”
 

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Felicité Yameogo talks about being a women entrepreneur in Africa today.
 
She persevered, overcoming a variety of challenges, from access to finance to obtaining permits to buy land. In 1992, she started exporting her products – soaps, lotions, shampoos – and in 2000 she launched her own brand, Karikis, which she started exporting internationally in 2007. 
 
Today, the company is producing about 500 tons annually of shea butter products and has 20 full-time employees – she hires additional short-term employees to complete orders. Recently, she found a partner in the U.S. to distribute her products.
 
From left, Felicite Yameogo, Patricia Badolo and Comfort Adjahoe.
From left, Felicite Yameogo, Patricia Badolo and Comfort Adjahoe.
Yameogo’s experience is like that of many other women entrepreneurs in Africa: their businesses grow slowly, obtaining financing and other support is  difficult, and people respond with surprise - and sometimes opposition - to the idea of a woman leading a company.
 
More directly, women entrepreneurs said, they face the reality of having two jobs when they take the reins of a company.
 
“African women have two jobs – they can never forget their homes, no matter what the case,” said Patricia Badolo, director of the Village Artisanal de Ouagadougou, the region’s largest artisan cooperative.
 
“When you come home and your child needs medicine or meals need to be prepared, you immediately start doing that work,” Yameogo said.
 
Little research has measured or examined the realities for African women entrepreneurs, but everyone agrees that their success is important.
 
“Women make up half of the population,” Danielle Mutone-Smith of Women Thrive Worldwide, an organization that advocates for policies to promote the economic empowerment of women. “For countries to grow and prosper, women need to prosper as well, women need to be contributing members of the economy.”
 
“In Burkina Faso, women invest more economically,” said Badolo. “They are leaders of their companies and lead those companies to profits that benefit the national economy.”
 

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Patricia Badolo talks about issues facing women entrepreneurs in Africa today.
 
There are signs – like the recent election in Ghana of a woman to lead a major cocoa farmer’s union – of women advancing in business at various levels, particularly in the formal private sector (in Africa, women run a wide variety of informal businesses).  More is being done to specifically help women entrepreneurs.
 
In August, more than 35 African businesswomen from across the continent founded the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program during the 9th annual African Growth and Opportunity Act forum in Washington, D.C. The initiative aims to increase exports under AGOA and investment in women-owned exporting companies. 
 
“We did not want this to look like just another training or seminar,” said Comfort Adjahoe, who signed the memorandum of understanding establishing the program. Adjahoe has sold exquisite glass beads, bead jewelry and shea butter products since 1996 at her company Ele Agbe. 
 
“This demonstrates a level of seriousness and commitment that we are going to work together” to promote women entrepreneurs, she said. “By coming together we can share our ideas. Nobody has ever succeeded in business alone.”
 
Other programs also target women entrepreneurs, Mutone-Smith said. The World Food Program's Purchase for Progress program sources products for food aid directly from women’s co-ops and processors and also helps them learn business skills. The recently launched USAID Feed the Future program also has a strong gender element, she said.
 
"Gender is a cross cutting theme of the program and the initiative targets women not just in the important role of contributors to family nutrition but as agents of economic change," Mutone-Smith wrote in an email. "There is a conscious effort to target women’s access to markets, financial services, in some cases land tenure issues - all points that will help women be better integrated into the formal economy."
 

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Comfort Adjahoe talks about the challenges she faced starting her company, Ele Agbe, in Ghana.
 
Governments can also do a number of things to promote the success of women entrepreneurs, women business owners said, such as:
 
Improve access to finance. Anecdotally, women said banks sometimes do not consider their applications as seriously as they do the applications that men submit. Government can make such discrimination illegal and provide technical assistance to women trying to obtain access to finance.
Increase technical assistance. Women entrepreneurs said specific assistance to help them package, label, brand and market their products was necessary.
Expand skills training, particularly for young women. “Today’s young girls are tomorrow’s business leaders,” Yameogo said. Such women need good business skills – management, marketing, accounting, etc. – to launch their own companies.
Ensure that women can hold title to property. While a law in Burkina Faso ostensibly promotes and protects the right of women to own land, Yameogo said it had not improved things for women. The reality is, she said, women cannot practically own land.
 
Persevering and working with determination, coupled with assistance in developing skills and connections, are keys to women entrepreneurs success, Badolo and other women entrepreneurs said.
 
“I’m very optimistic,” Badolo said. “More of our young girls today are going to school. Step by step, we’ve reached a point where women are succeeding on their own. We no longer need a manager.”
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