8 April 2011

Zambia: Women Face Challenges in Expanding Trade Activities

ALTHOUGH many women have done exceptionally well in business ventures in Zambia and the rest of the world at large, they still face a strong challenge in expanding their trade activities due to various difficulties that they encounter.

The informal sector ,mostly in Africa and particularly in selling, is dominated by women, but this is hardly an indication that the women are enjoying every movement they make in this area.

While small scale business Zambian entrepreneurs have mainly relied on hand-to-mouth business, they continue to live delicately.

This is so because they realise that any slight tempering with their little capital would send shivers of fear to their families who look up to them for living.

As for women organisations that have found solace in working as a group, their worry is not about capital alone, but how they would find ready markets for any product that they produce through their associations.

Interestingly, while many have proved to be capable of exporting some of their products and services, the criteria and channels used to do such a lucrative venture seem to have complicated the matter.

The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which was established in 2000, was aimed at addressing such complications and enable many African entrepreneurs to export various products to the American market.

The AGOA, signed into law by former US president Bill Clinton was aimed at expanding trade and investment between America and 37 sub-Saharan African countries.

Sadly, this has proved to be an act in fitility as many African entrepreneurs continue to find it hard to export to the American market while nations with bigger economies continue to enjoy.

Perhaps the only consolation for African countries is that in the past decade, they have been able to introduce business reforms as well as stabilise the exchange rates over the past decade, but whether that is due to AGOA is everyone's opinion to guess.

It has even been worse for the women and their organisations as their hopes have been turned into frustrations because of the trade imbalance between the US and the Sub-Sahara African countries.

For instance, the value of bilateral trade between Zambia and the US has been experiencing a declining trend in the past six years from 2002 and in that year the trade resulted in a significant trade surplus of US$27.8 million in favour of the US.

As if that is not enough, Zambia's export value to the US has decreased from $55 million to $7.5 million over that period, while the country's imports from America increased from $29.3 million to $35.7 million.

Perhaps it is from this gloomy background that women entrepreneurs in Zambia were swift to adopt the new initiative by US secretary of state Hilary Clinton that is specifically aimed at empowering them to become part of the national and global business network for economic growth.

Ms Clinton conceived an idea of African Women Entrepreneurship Programme (AWEP) last year which will run side by side with the AGOA in an effort to cushion the burden of doing business by women in Africa.

Although the initiative caters for the whole of Africa especially the AGOA member states, Zambia has become the first country to adopt the chapter and the women entrepreneurs have since adopted First Lady Thandiwe Banda as matron of the AWEP Zambia.

The programme is aimed at encouraging women in Africa to get more involved in learning how to succeed in business leadership and enable African women entrepreneurs and their US counterparts to share knowledge and experience on how to do business.

As well as applauding the first lady for accepting to be matron of the Chapter. AWEP chairperson Christine Mulundika assured that women entrepreneurs in Zambia were geared to get recognition on the world map.

"We thank you madam first lady for leading us today and we value your support to women in Zambia," Ms Mulundika said during the launch of AWEP Zambia chapter at State House.

"We have spent sleepless nights to have this chapter and I can assure you that we are geared to succeed."

Sylvia Banda who has been one of Zambia's top entrepreneurs through her promotion of local food both locally and abroad has been adopted as ambassador for AWEP.

But the presence of Zambia's US Ambassador to the US Sheila Siwela and her counterpart of the US in Zambia Mark Storella at the launch was a clear indication about the significance attached to women affairs by the two countries.

Mr Storella said the issue of women and girls' welfare has been one of the top priorities of US envoys in every country where they have been sent, and the initiative by Mrs Clinton was evident to that.

"The department of State has called all of us and the secretary of State told us that if we don't pay attention to the issues surrounding girls and women in the countries, then we are not doing a good job," he said.

Mr Storella praised Zambia for its promotion of democracy in the region, and noted that with the AGOA Forum in June to take place in Zambia as well as the launch of the AWEP, the country had once again taken a rightful place on the world map.

"You have been leaders in democracy in the region and President Rupiah Banda has already played a big role to attract the AGOA forum in Zambia and this is putting Zambia on the world map," he said.

As for Ms Siwela, she is not only proud to represent Zambia in Washington, but also happy that many people outside Zambia were applauding the economic gains that the country has recorded in the recent past.

"I walk with my head high in Washington and many people from other countries have always admired my country," she said.

"But what surprises me sometimes is that some people do not see the development that our friends outside see."

Ms Siwela called on the women entrepreneurs in Zambia to ensure the AWEP was sustained even after the AGOA Forum in June.

Jubilations were inevitable at the launch as women entrepreneurs took advantage of the event to showcase their handmade local products that are ready to get into the international market.

Mrs Banda's speech which was punctuated by ululation and applauses from the women heightened the mood and expectations from AWEP as it seeks ways to get recognition on the world market.

The first lady said with the birth of AWEP, the initiative would help to propel Africa to another level in business performance.

"The programme empowers women entrepreneurs to become part of the national and global business network by taking advantage of doing business with America through AGOA, and to encourage their American counterparts to invest in the Sub-Sahara Africa," she said.

With the AGOA theme 'enhancing productivity and value addition for deeper economic integration,' the AWEP is set to recognise the special contributions of women entrepreneurs through the AGOA African women entrepreneurship programme.

Mrs Banda, however, cautioned women to be disciplined and resilient as well as establish security, stability and prosperity as they work together to push for economic success.

Although some women in Zambia and the rest of the world have made significant achievements in society, there is still a strong general perception that women are always secondary to their male counterparts in every aspect of life.

It is hoped that the adoption of the AWEP Zambia chapter has opened doors for more countries to adopt the initiative and be able to respond to the needs of the women in business.

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