Washington — Emerging economies that support business development with investments in infrastructure such as roads, ports and education will experience stronger economic growth. When those businesses are led by women, the entire society benefits from the prosperity they create.
That message came through clearly June 15 when a panel of African business owners -- all women -- explained the limitations they encounter in trying to expand their promising businesses. The women shared their stories with an audience populated by many government ministers and fellow entrepreneurs from the region participating in the 11th U.S.-Sub-Saharan African Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum, also known as the AGOA Forum.
Melanne Verveer, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for global women's issues, said women entrepreneurs in many countries, including the United States, have proven that they can build businesses that create jobs and grow wealth. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's favorite adage on this topic, Verveer said, is that investing in women is smart and strategic action for national economic policy.
Verveer said the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has documented the economic contributions of women in agriculture. If women farming small lots in Africa had the same access to tools, seed, loans and markets as men, FAO reports, there would be a marked improvement in their productivity, Verveer said.
"Their yields would increase by 20 to 30 percent," Verveer said. "According to the FAO, this enhanced productivity could feed 150 million more people."
Liberian Minister of Agriculture Florence Chenoweth joined Verveer on the panel, saying she's seen firsthand how the lack of adequate infrastructure stymies farmers in her country.
"Agriculture must not produce, and then go through the frustration of not being able to market" products, Chenoweth said, because of inadequate roads or transport to reach markets, or because farmers don't know how to enter the market or price and package their products.
Chenoweth said supporting infrastructure also includes training, skills and instruction in how to run a business.
African women entrepreneurs who are running agriculture-based businesses also appeared at the forum, explaining some of the problems they've encountered as they've attempted to expand their businesses. Namakau Likando is the manager and co-owner of Lumuno Organic Farms in Zambia. Her business has become a leader in organic, environmentally friendly farming techniques and is prosperous enough to help support school fees for local children.
But Likando is lacking a very basic thing essential to a farmer -- Lumuno Farms is on communal land, which is governed in the traditional fashion. Without a land title of her own, Likando doesn't have the freedom to make all the decisions about how the land is used.
Neither does Lumuno Farms have access to the electrical grid, she said. Likando said they use gasoline-fueled generators for the power they need to process crops into food products.
"That has proved to be a really big problem," Likando said, because of the costs of the fuel. "It drives the cost of the chili sauce even higher."
Lumuno Farms could also use more sophisticated equipment, but a 28 percent interest rate prevents Likando from trying to get a loan to buy new machinery and processing equipment.
Likando, who attended the forum with a group of other women as part of the African Women's Entrepreneur Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, cited other infrastructure problems for her Zambian farm: A poor road network makes transport of products and raw materials difficult, and her region has limited access to education, so her workers don't have the skills they need, nor the means to get them.
Agriculture could be a route to increased economic prosperity, but another panelist reminded the audience that women farmers have also made the difference between life and death. Massogbe Diabate Touré is the owner and director general of SITA SA, a company in Côte d'Ivoire that produces, treats and exports cashew nuts. During the country's civil war, Touré said, "women ensured that people didn't starve."
With her country's ministers seated in the audience, Touré said, through an interpreter, "We have bent over backwards to survive" through the nation's strife. Now, she said, women farmers deserve the support of their government and a voice in the nation's future as it works to overcome the scars of war.
Touré is eager to expand her production with the addition of further equipment, but will need help to acquire it. If she gets that help, Touré said, SITA SA and its cashews can help build assets in Côte d'Ivoire and lift some of its citizens from poverty.