Washington — Women entrepreneurs from 37 African nations convened in Washington for the third meeting of the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP), which runs from June 3 to 23. Representing a colorful variety of cultures, customs and languages, the nearly 50 AWEP delegates all had two things in common: entrepreneurial experience, and a dedication to improving communities through business.
Launched by the State Department in 2010, AWEP builds networks of women entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa who run small- and medium-sized businesses that advance their communities and their countries. Each year, AWEP delegates spend three weeks in the United States learning about best business practices and ways to confront common challenges through professional development meetings with policymakers, industry associations, nonprofit groups and businesspeople.
The 2012 delegates manage businesses in industries like agribusiness and food processing, textiles, home decor, clothing and cosmetics. Many of these businesses export their products to other African countries, Europe and even the United States, and all have an Internet presence.
A vivacious entrepreneur from Ghana, Francesca Brenda Opoku is the founder and chief executive officer of Solution Oasis, a company that produces beauty products from cocoa and shea butter. Though her small factory directly employs 15 people, Opoku’s company also works with many women in the northern part of the country who collect ash and natural oils for Solution Oasis’s products. At peak production times, Opoku employs as many as 200 people.
Opoku is keenly aware of the positive ways in which her company influences her employees and her surrounding community. She decided to locate her factory outside of the Ghanaian capital of Accra so that she could provide employment to people in rural areas, enabling them to avoid the difficult process of moving into the city. She says her employees and their families also benefit from the increasing demand for her company’s products in foreign markets.
“If I come here to the United States and I do happen to grab a big order, it’s a big joy for me because my company does advance, but for those women … there is that multiplying effect, where everybody gets this tiny piece of the cake,” Opoku said. With increased incomes from greater production, her employees are able to pay for their children’s educational fees and other goods or services that before may have been out of reach.
Rwandan businesswoman Gloria Kamanzi Uwizera, founder of an art and fashion business called Glo Creations, has observed the same empowering influence of her own company on her employees and their families. Glo Creations has five full-time employees, and all use their wages to pay for their children’s education and other familial expenses.
“Sometimes you don’t even realize what we are doing for our community,” Uwizera said. In addition to providing employment for local people, “I’ve started … sharing my story with them just to inspire them not to look at themselves as if they don’t have potential, as if they don’t have skills, as if they don’t have anything to share with others,” she said.
Weko Rispa, who runs an embroidery boutique and a women’s embroidery cooperative in Chad, echoes Opoku's and Uwizera’s awareness of the cascading benefits of business. Her Rispa Boutique not only employs widows and orphans left in difficult situations by the instability there, but also is planning employment projects for young girls with HIV/AIDS. The impact of employment at her boutique spreads beyond these marginalized people to their relatives and friends.
“For us in Africa, family is very important, so we have jobs that provide not only for one person but for the surrounding members of the family, the neighbors,” she said.
The AWEP delegates agree that Africa needs more entrepreneurship to improve its political and economic development. Entrepreneurship not only distributes wealth to ordinary people, but also strengthens a nation’s economy and trade relations with the rest of the world.
“It is very important for Africans to become entrepreneurs because by doing that, we actually put ourselves on the map,” said Sierra Leonean Ulreen I. Turay, owner of a home decor business called Mitco Enterprises. “We become stakeholders in our country’s development.”
A country’s citizens are often well-placed to lead the way in economic and social reform.
“We can’t leave everything to the government,” Uwizera said. “We are the ones who know what we need, we are the ones who know where we want to go, so entrepreneurship is very important because we are … helping one another.”
AWEP complements the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and provides African businesswomen with information and connections that they can use to improve business operations, secure public-private partnerships, and expand women’s role in shaping national business climates. This year’s AWEP program concludes with attendance at the State Department’s U.S.-Africa Business Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.