Last week, Washington welcomed 30 small and medium-sized female business owners from 27 countries in Africa, who are participants in the African Women’s Entrepreneur Program (AWEP). Every year, 30 female entrepreneurs are invited to the U.S. to attend professional development meetings and network with U.S. policy makers, companies, industry associations, nonprofit groups, and multilateral development organizations. For the past two weeks, the women have traveled throughout the U.S. to meet with scores of professionals in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle.
The visit marks three years of success for AWEP, which was launched by the U.S. Department of State in July 2010. The program is an outreach, education, and engagement initiative that works with African women entrepreneurs in several main focus areas. AWEP supports the Presidential Policy Directive on U.S. strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa by operating on two parallels: it spurs economic growth and trade by involving female entrepreneurs in the sector, and promotes opportunity and development throughout the continent for women and youth.
The Department of State acknowledges that supporting growth in Africa is economically and politically vital; doing so opens up trade to U.S. markets and creates positive business environments both at home and abroad. In addition, AWEP helps to empower women in their respective countries; in Africa, women are the backbone of communities, and by enabling them to utilize their economic power, the program is helping to reduce the gender gap in education and improve health, political participation and economic inclusion.
The women in the program include Mame Diene from Senegal, whose organic cosmetics and nutraceuticals company, Bioessence Laboratories, employs almost 4,000 people. The visit to Washington enabled Ms. Diene and her peers to discuss business growth and female empowerment in Africa. When the women return to their countries, they join AWEP chapters where they can connect with other successful businesswomen; by building networks, the initiative is enabling these women to become voices for social advocacy in their communities.
AWEP is a prime example of U.S. commitment to foreign investment in developing regions. Globally, women constitute 50% of the global population and 40% of the global workforce, yet they own just 1% of the world’s wealth. By providing a platform from which women can effectively run their own businesses, AWEP is resulting in positive economic, social and political changes that are beneficial for the U.S. both abroad and at home.