Integrating African Women Into the Global Economy

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Ministerial Plenary
Lusaka, Zambia
June 10, 2011

It is a pleasure for me to be here at the AGOA Ministerial to participate on this panel focused on integrating African women into the global economy. I’m particularly pleased to be here with my distinguished co-panelists.

I met Sylvia Banda last year at the first-ever African Women Entrepreneurship Program that took place in Washington during the AGOA Ministerial. Since then, she has been instrumental in creating AWEP’s dynamic Zambian Chapter and the AWEP Conference that is also taking place here. I’m told that you can’t turn on a radio or a TV in Zambia without hearing about AWEP! We have just concluded a special event with the Zambian Minister for Commerce, Industry, and Trade, Felix Mutati, at which he launched a women’s business incubator that will be housed here in Lusaka. Zambia has also agreed to serve as the secretariat for AWEP.

I’m also pleased to see Hanna Tetteh, Minister of Trade and Industry from Ghana. She and I met years ago when she was serving in parliament, and I’ve had the good fortune over the years to participate in many public policy discussions with her. It is a privilege to be able to refer to my friend as “Madame Minister.”

The AGOA Ministerial serves to remind us of the importance of the American – African relationship. Through AGOA over the past 11 years, we have strengthened our ties, increased our trade, and created economic opportunities for our people. I was serving in the White House when President Clinton signed AGOA in 2000, and it has had strong support in both the U.S. and in Africa ever since.

Each time I travel to Africa, I’m reminded just how rich this Continent is in its beauty and resources—the greatest of which is its people. But Africa’s biggest underutilized resource—in fact, the most untapped resource the world over—is women, and that is especially true when it comes to economic growth. When we fail to tap the potential of women, we not only shortchange them but shortchange our economies and prosperity.

Let me turn for a moment to the way women’s economic participation contributes to economic growth.

The World Economic Forum releases an annual Gender Gap Report, which measures the equality of men and women in four areas: access to education, health survivability, economic participation, and political participation. What the analysis shows is where the gap is closest to being closed—where men and women are more equal—countries are more economically competitive and prosperous.

World Bank research shows that gender inequality limits economic growth, and when gender-based barriers are removed, economies can better flourish. This is why the World Bank has a focus on gender equality as smart economics.

Furthermore, Goldman Sachs has produced seminal research that shows women-run small and medium-sized businesses are growth accelerators: if we want to grow GDP, they are a high-yield investment.

Today, more and more companies are recognizing the benefits of diversity to their bottom-line – diversity on their corporate boards, diversity in management, diversity in the workforce, and diversity in supply chains. We also know that diversity contributes to innovative thinking and innovation is the source of economic competitiveness.

We know too that women form one of the fastest growing markets with the greatest purchasing power. It therefore makes strategic sense that the composition of companies involved in supplying, designing, and marketing goods and services reflect this market.

Women’s incomes constitute a multiplier effect on the economy because they invest upwards of 90% of their earnings in their families’ health and education, investments which transform the community and build the broader economy.

So it is a simple fact that women are drivers of economic growth, and today we have the data to support it. Let us resolve to apply this data and grow women’s economic participation to build and expand economies as we move forward.

The Obama Administration understands the importance of investing in women, which is why we launched the African Women Entrepreneurship Program at last year’s AGOA Forum. AWEP is helping African businesswomen grow their SMEs, create and expand women’s business networks, build export-ready businesses, and work with governments to improve business opportunities for women.

In just a year, the women have created a pan-African businesswomen’s platform, and they have reached into their own pockets to provide training and support to other women’s business networks. And they’ve worked with many of you in government to improve business opportunities for women.

Rugie Barry, the CEO of one of the largest construction supply companies in Liberia, was first introduced to the concept of an incubator at the 2010 AWEP event. Barely three months later, Rugie launched a business incubator for women in Monrovia. Today it is enabling several hundred small businesswomen to access sound business practices.

AWEP women are entrepreneurial in every sense of the word and are creating their own opportunities, and in so doing sending positive ripple effects throughout this great Continent.

All of us need to do more to support women entrepreneurs. Governments should enact laws to ensure women’s property and land rights, facilitate access to capital, do away with discriminatory regulations, policies, and practices, and better enable women to operate businesses and participate in trade that benefits everyone. This is a win-win prescription for economic growth.

African women are working hard to start and expand their businesses and to invest in the well-being of their families and communities. They are innovative and industrious, but they still face many barriers that stand in their way. AGOA can do more to recognize the role of women-run SMEs in Africa’s growth. After all, when women progress, everyone benefits. And when women participate fully in their economies, economies are more competitive and countries are more prosperous. That is true here in Africa and that is true around the world.