When successful entrepreneurs come together, the ideas that emerge are nothing short of amazing. And when those entrepreneurs are also women who have fought gender bias and other challenges, the ideas have the potential to change the face of commerce for a continent. This week, we welcomed to Washington small and medium-sized business owners from 27 countries in Africa who spent the last two weeks meeting with U.S. entrepreneurs and CEOs in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and Albuquerque, as part of the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP).
The women in the program include entrepreneurs like Mame Diene of Senegal, who runs Bioessence Laboratories and produces organic cosmetics and nutraceuticals, while employing close to 4,000 people. Another example is Thelma Elizabeth Venichand, whose organization, CleanStar, converts nutrient-poor cassava into ethanol. And now, as a result, more than 1,000 local small scale farmers – mostly women – grow cassava to produce safe, affordable, and efficient cooking fuel. All 30 women have amazing stories, and each one of them has the potential to impact their country in unforeseeable ways.
Talking with the women, you see what the exchange program means to them. All are accomplished in their own right, yet the women tell us that the program has changed their lives. As Virginia Kinoro of Kenya remarked, “I feel like I now have wings to fly.” Those “wings to fly” are not only in reference to growing businesses, they are about building community. The women want to discuss empowering other women and how they can make a difference. While growing their business is one of the best ways to help their communities, they also want to engage their community by sharing the lessons they have learned. Now in its fourth year, AWEP is one of our most successful initiatives because of the opportunities it provides. When the women return home, they join AWEP Chapters, where they connect with other successful women business owners in their communities. A 2012 AWEP participant, Minata Kone of Burkina Faso, has expanded her business to supply cashews to Costco. She then leveraged that business contact to partner with Costco to provide training to local cashew farmers in 12 local villages. The training enabled the producers to access the international marketplace and build bridges between American and Burkinabé entrepreneurs.
As the women discussed the challenges they faced, they also talked about solutions, such as reaching out to USAID Trade HUBs for support and using social media to market their products. As the participant from Chad noted, it is the “renaissance of women,” and it is going to make a real difference to their communities.