By Charles W. Corey
Washington - Thirty-four African women entrepreneurs are participating in the 2010 U.S.-Sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum - better known as the AGOA Forum - and the African Women's Entrepreneurship Forum to further enhance the U.S.-Africa trade relationship by expanding their businesses and increasing economic growth in their own countries.
Four of these women - entrepreneurs from Uganda, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Botswana - talked to America.gov July 27.
Maria Odido, chief executive officer of Bee Natural Products Ltd. in Uganda, said she is currently assessing how her business could benefit under AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act. "It would take me a while to access the U.S. market for several reasons," she said. "First of all, production levels are not very high, and therefore I cannot freely export to the U.S. I don't have a problem with quality, but I do have a problem with quantity."
Odido said she would like to see an expanded role for AGOA in the area of agricultural trade and in her particular business sector, which has a direct link to food security. Odido called small businesses like hers, known as SMEs for "small and medium-sized enterprises," "the backbone of the economy, because a lot of times they employ the unemployable. They are underfunded and not properly recognized, but they still exist and continue to exist alongside major multinationals. What I would like to see is recognition of the value that SMEs play in Africa, just as developed countries have recognized the role of SMEs in their countries and used them to strengthen their economies. That has not become a reality in Africa."
Whatever else is done, she said, "more attention needs to be directed at SMEs."
Her business employs 42 people and is the biggest honey and beeswax producer in Uganda and second largest in Kenya, Odido said. She hopes to begin exporting to three other East African countries soon, and stresses the importance of greater intra-Africa trade.
"While it is fantastic to romanticize about trading with the rest of the world," Odido said, "if we cannot have intra-Africa trade, intra-regional trade, then how are we going to understand international trade? Africa is composed of small SMEs and ...it is the small SMEs that make up the backbone of African trade."
Not only do African countries need to drop their tariffs to stimulate trade among themselves, she said, "but regional bodies in Africa need to understand the realities on the ground and break the barriers both on the ground and not on paper."
"Right now we have governments in Africa who talk in the air, but whatever they talk ... is not translated on the ground. The bureaucrats, the technocrats on the ground cannot implement the visions of the heads of state and all the rectifications that have been made through the year," she said.
Odido suggested five ways to improve intra-Africa trade:
. Africans need first to understand each other and have pride in the products that are produced in Africa.
. African products must be of the highest quality and up to worldwide standards.
. Regional taxes must be uniform and forward-looking for the future.
. Individual border inspections should be removed and each African country that trades within a regional group should have confidence in the revenue and inspection standards for the group.
. Infrastructure must be developed to allow for the smooth flow of regional trade. "That is where the governments must play a leading role to ensure that we are able to continue doing business, so that we can play our part and the governments can play their part," Odido said.
Caroline Jose Ernestine Sack Ep Kendem, general manager and founder of Ken Atlantic, a clothing manufacturer in Cameroon, is in the United States to gain access to the U.S. market under the AGOA trade preference program.
Her company, which produces swimwear for export to Europe, wants to export work uniforms to the United States and has a contract with U.S. pharmacy chain CVS Caremark.
"I really hope to expand my business network" at AGOA, she said. Factors facing African businesses wanting to trade with the United States are many, she said, including high transportation costs (up to 45 days to ship from Cameroon to the United States) and the need for improved banking networks to facilitate business." It is a big issue," she said, talking of the shipping conundrum. "We have one ship a week" visiting Douala.
Kendem said her items can be cost effective and she hopes to expand from 110 to 800 employees if she secures additional U.S. contracts. "This is my goal for this year. So I need to meet some partners."
Nigest Haile Goshu, founder and executive director of the Center for African Women Economic Empowerment, an indigenous nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, says her organization is working closely with the U.S. embassy and AGOA specialists to try to take advantage of the trade preference program, especially in the area of handicrafts and traditional weavings for home décor, as well as in textiles, leather and flowers.
The level of interest among Ethiopian women who are hoping to export under AGOA is very high, she said. Experienced businesswomen are working as mentors and role models, sharing their "best practices" with other businesswomen in an attempt to help them prosper under AGOA.
Helping women in business helps the local community, Goshu said. "Empowering women empowers the family. Empowering women is empowering a community and then empowering a nation. When you empower a woman and empower a man, you can see the difference. Whatever profit and benefit the woman is getting, she is investing that in her children, and she is investing in the home, better education for her children, better food, and better nutrition. So there is a great difference."
Chigedze Virginia Chinyepi, managing director of Tjina Njando Crafts of Botswana, is in the United States seeking customers for her company's handicraft products, which include custom decorative baskets. She has already exported her products on a small scale to the United States and displayed them at the prestigious Santa Fe Folk Art Market in New Mexico and the Los Angeles International Gift Show. "The goal we want is to secure permanent buyers," she said, much like the basket producers of Rwanda have done with the large retailer Macy's.
U.S. imports from sub-Saharan Africa increased by 78 percent to $26.6 billion in the first five months of 2010. Imports under AGOA increased 74 percent to $18.8 billion during this period. AGOA non-oil products included vehicles and parts, apparel, jewelry, fruits and vegetables, wines, nuts, spices, baskets, cocoa powder, cocoa paste and seafood.
Source: U.S. Department of State