Supporting African businesswomen is key to the economic development of the continent. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said many times, "No country can thrive when half its people are left behind." And the evidence is persuasive: small and medium-sized enterprises run by women are major drivers of economic growth.
Speaking to the African Growth and Opportunity Forum in Zambia, Secretary Clinton noted that in too many places it is still too difficult for a woman to start a business. Cultural traditions may discourage her from handling money or managing employees. Complex regulations may make it hard for her to buy land or keep land or get a loan.
In an effort to change that, the U.S. State Department in August 2010 established the African Women's Entrepreneurship Program, or AWEP, – a professional exchange and training program. Participants included entrepreneurs of small and medium-sized businesses in Africa. Many of their companies engage in exporting under the terms of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, while others are working to increase their export capacity and establish business relationships with U.S. partners. Zambia just completed hosting a follow-on conference this month. Secretary Clinton announced that the U.S. will contribute two million dollars this year and next to support the on-going work of the AWEP network.
In the fall, a new group of African businesswomen will travel to the United States from September 20th through October 7th for another AWEP Leadership Program. They will meet and network with U.S. policy makers, companies, and industry associations, civil society groups, non-profit organizations advocating for women's economic opportunities, multilateral development organizations and business alliances.
The State Department also recently sponsored the first-ever delegation of American businesswomen from the technology industry to Liberia and Sierra Leone. That visit led to the creation of a new business incubator in Sierra Leone focused especially on women.
Future economic growth in Africa depends on tapping the entrepreneurial skills of women. The United States remains committed to making sure African women get the tools and the resources they need to produce, market, and sell their products.