The U.S. Department of State has made women's economic advancement a foreign policy priority, and this is especially promising in developing and emerging economies where women have for too long been relegated to the margins and hidden in the shadows of the informal economy. This has been the case in Africa, for example, where we are implementing new initiatives to bridge barriers that have traditionally kept women from entering and competing in the business arena and contributing to the progress and prosperity of their nations.
Just over a year ago, the Department of State launched the first African Women Entrepreneurs Program (AWEP) as a means of advancing women's leadership and growing women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs). The AWEP initiative is empowering more women to leverage the benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), expanding opportunities for exports and U.S. investment in sub-Sahara Africa, creating stronger national business climates, and cultivating regional women's business networks and follow-on programs.
I had the unique privilege of meeting the inaugural group of pioneering women when they visited Washington, DC last August. Their energy and determination was admirable and contagious. As Secretary Clinton has said, women in Africa are already "holding up half the economy" -- albeit in too many places, they are doing so in the shadows of the informal economy where their true impact is not recognized nor valued. But initiatives like AWEP are attempting to correct that, and provide women entrepreneurs and emerging business leaders the tools, resources and skills to prosper and fuel greater job growth. When a mother, or a female member of a household, makes economic gains, she reinvests her earnings in her family, sparking a ripple effect that can improve lives across generations. When women have the chance to experiment with business incubators, for example, they can unleash not only the potential of other women, but also create opportunities and alliances with business men and aspiring youth entrepreneurs. Our support for women's entrepreneurship is integral to our new way of doing business, one that is based on "partnership not patronage, not on handouts but on the kind of economic growth that underlies long term progress."
This summer in Lusaka, during the AWEP conference organized and run by the AWEP women -- including Sylvia Banda of Zambia founder of the first AWEP chapter -- in partnership with the Zambian government and private sector, we had the chance to connect with some of the initial beneficiaries of AWEP. We saw first hand some of their products, business strategies, and impact on regional business networks and trade. It was encouraging to see such progress and momentum in less than a year of launching AWEP. This week, we have welcomed a group of 40 African women from 36 countries to the United States as they embark on the next phase of the AWEP journey.
Recent studies have found that women-run SME's have proven to be powerful drivers of economic growth. It is becoming increasingly apparent that when the traditional barriers to women's economic participation are removed, and when they are afforded their rightful access to business opportunities -- to markets, to finance and credit, and to training, their potential to contribute to prosperity and progress can have no bounds. Thus, a key element of our outreach to African women entrepreneurs also includes an emphasis on helping women take their businesses to then next level. Thus far, the results are impressive. Since joining AWEP, a solid 35 percent of participants have secured an increase in trade deals in foreign countries, and 50 percent have boosted the production capacity of their businesses. Further, 63 percent have reported growth in the size of their business, including an increase in number of employees.
From Angola and Cameroon, to Liberia and Zambia, women participating in AWEP are making a difference, breaking down barriers, building partnerships, and expanding the benefits of trade. Several participants are focused on establishing businesses to benefit local farmers and expanding opportunities for agro-production. Others are working with rural businesses to teach aspiring entrepreneurs the ins and outs of exporting and international trade and financial literacy. Some have secured trade deals with U.S. companies, and others like AWEP 2010 alumna Mariama Sesay of Sierra Leone founded the Comprehensive Women's Organization (CWO) which aims to support women's empowerment in the agricultural sector in a country where women make up 67 percent of the agricultural labor force.
Some key success stories of note include women like Caroline Kendem of Cameroon who has developed an innovative business incubation idea that aims to establish a multi-production line facility. Securing a government-subsidized factory with 400 production lines, Ms. Kendem will house 10 SME's or entrepreneurs, allotting 40 production lines each. With production costs and overhead covered for two years, the entrepreneurs will have the chance grow their businesses, increase their production capacity and seek local and international trade deals. At the end of the two years, these 10 entrepreneurs will take their increased businesses capacity and continue to grow while 10 new entrepreneurs are brought in, ensuring sustainability.
The caliber of African women entrepreneurs emerging through AWEP clearly demonstrates that when women are empowered with the right combination of skills and resources, they can become an invaluable force multiplier in the field of business, creating jobs, contributing to trade, and generating wealth not just for themselves, but for their families and communities. It is heartening to see the determination, commitment and innovation of the AWEP participants. I am truly inspired by some of the progress we are seeing in some of our initiatives to spur women's entrepreneurship and innovation. Under the AWEP initiative, our sisters in Africa are breaking new ground in business, partnerships and prosperity. Supporting their progress is not just the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do.
You can view videos of some of the women describing their participation in the 2011 African Women's Entrepreneurship Program below.
Ms. Nadir Luzianne Casimiro Tati Nuhrmann, Fashion Designer and Owner of Nadir Tati, from Angola
Ms. Isha Fofana, Founder/CEO of Mama Africa Women's Museum and Art Center, from Gambia
Ms. Priscilla Impraim, Chief Executive Officer at AB OVO Confectionery Limited, from Ghana
Ms. Joyce William Mbwete, Owner/Managing Director of Foot Loose Tanzania Limited, from Tanzania