Historic Year for Women Continues between the U.S., Africa and Middle East with Economic Empowerment Dialogues

March 31, 2021

Camille Richardson is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for the Middle East & Africa

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In the United States, 2021 is shaping up to be a historic year for women. For those of us in the field of trade, to have women appointed to key Cabinet positions this month, including Secretary of Commerce and the U.S. Trade Representative is a great honor and reflection of our values as a nation. At the International Trade Administration (ITA), we are committed to empowering women in business, exporting and entrepreneurship in the U.S. across the world, including in the Africa and the Middle East—a region of significant trade growth and investment.

The statistics may surprise you. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 29 percent of all small, medium, and large firms are owned by women. In Kenya, for example, between 2000 and 2019, the percentage of women wage and salary earners doubled from 20 to 40 percent, giving Kenya’s female labor force the highest participation rate, at 24 percent, in Sub-Saharan Africa.

What’s also impressive, here in the U.S., between 2014 and 2019, women-led businesses outstripped the total population of U.S. businesses in terms of growth in the number of businesses created, the number of jobs created, and total revenue generated. However, only 12 percent of women owned companies exported – foregoing the higher-revenues and increased number of jobs created through trade.

Empowering Women through Trade and Investment

Supporting the growth and success of women entrepreneurs in the U.S. and overseas is key to our economic recovery and is precisely why ITA created WELLTI: Women Empowered Leave Legacies through Trade and Investment. As part of this initiative, this year we launched a series of ‘Coffee Chats’ to connect women in the United States and countries throughout Africa and the Middle East to discuss shared challenges and opportunities to grow business through trade and investment activities. I’ve had the privilege of moderating these discussions and am grateful to all those who participated.

At our inaugural meeting in January, we spotlighted Kenya and highlighted the work of Dr. Joyce Gikunda, the founder of Linton’s Beauty World, who grew her beauty and cosmetics business into a line of pharmacies by importing products from the U.S.  Our top Commercial Diplomat in Kenya, Diane Jones, organized the event and discussed on the ground resources for U.S. women entrepreneurs looking for business connections.

In March, our Commercial post in Kenya co-hosted another event with Kayana Create to support women importers in Kenya looking to buy more products from the U.S.  This event was attended by participants representing a wide variety of sectors and was a wonderful opportunity for Kenyan businesswomen to learn how to source goods and services from the United States.

Also, in celebration of Women’s History Month, we featured two women entrepreneurs from Ethiopia: Felekeche Biratu, co-founder of the Yenae Collection, and Sarah Yirga, founder of Ya Coffee Roaster and Ethiopia Women in Coffee who, through trade and investment with the United States, have positioned their products for sale with high end brands such as Hilton Hotels. Our top Commercial Diplomat in Ethiopia, Yasue Pai, coordinated that event, and hosted a special webinar highlighting the positive impact that female entrepreneurship can have on economic recovery and growth and participating in corporate global supply chains. Women-owned businesses have been especially hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. These virtual coffee chats are just one way that ITA is supporting these businesses. Entrepreneurs in Ethiopia and across the U.S. participated in this virtual chat.

To wrap up this month’s celebration, the Department of Commerce’s President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa is holding a virtual panel event today, March 31. Enabling Women Entrepreneurs in U.S.-Africa Trade and Investment will bring together women entrepreneurs and senior officials from the United States and Africa to discuss policies and programs that should be developed or strengthened in both markets to address the constraints women-owned businesses face in international trade. The conversation will also include practical insights from notable U.S. and African women entrepreneurs and feature remarks from U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and Kenya’s Ambassador to the United States, the Honorable Lazarus Amayo.

Continuing the Effort

We have mapped out our Coffee Chat series featuring a market or topic each month through February 2022 leading up to a special women-focused event as part of our Trade Winds 2022 Trade Mission and Business Forum taking place in Dubai March 6-8. We are doing all of this because we believe that women will play a key role in global economic recovery in a post-pandemic world.

When women are given the right tools, information, and connections, they become empowered to make economies stronger and increase workforce productivity. Women are built to be resilient and ITA stands ready to empower women, who are passionate about what they do, so the contributions they make will help us to build back better in a post-pandemic world.

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