Remarks at Unlocking Global Economic Growth: The Empowerment of Women Entrepreneurs Under AGOA

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
U.S. Department of State
Washington, D.C.
September 26, 2016

As prepared

Good morning. It’s my pleasure to welcome you all to the State Department, and to the inaugural AGOA dialogue on women and trade. I’d like to thank our cohost, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and especially Scott Eisner, for bringing the voice of the private sector to the discussion.

We have a distinguished group of panelists today: Linda Thomas- Greenfield, the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs; Fatima Acyl, the Commissioner for Trade and Industry Trade for the African Union; AWEP leaders Rachel Ebaneth and Zohra Baraka; and our moderator, Tope Iluyemi, from Proctor and Gamble. We also have USAID’s Deputy Assistant Administrator Oren E. Whyche-Shaw and Foreign Minister of Kenya, Ms. Amina Mohamed.

We’re all here because the African Growth and Opportunity Act recognizes a universal truth: that women are essential to economic development. They are farmers who feed families and communities, and job creators who train and mentor the next generation. They are artisans who create beautiful products using traditional methods. And they are entrepreneurs with innovative ideas that move economies forward.

We need every farmer, job creator, artisan, and entrepreneur in our countries to have access to the resources they need to do their work. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Women are far less likely than men to have access to capital and to the markets, to networks and communities that will help them expand their businesses.

If we address these challenges, we will see a tremendous difference in the economy—and at all levels too. From the community level, where women invest in their kids’ education and health care and hire other women, to the national level, where the GDP will grow as more women enter the economy.

We’ve seen this here in the United States, where women own 30 percent of small businesses. They bring in $1.2 trillion every year in sales. And they do this operating in an environment that can be challenging. More often than not, even though they have the same business savvy and big ideas as men, women have a harder time. We know that’s not good for business. It’s not good for economic growth. And it’s not good for American families.

But this problem is not unique to the United States. It’s a global problem. And so, as we move forward with our commitment to AGOA, it’s critical that we promote inclusive development and smart economies. And that means including women in our efforts. That’s why the State Department has invested in initiatives like the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, also known as AWEP. This program builds networks of women entrepreneurs across the continent.

If you look at the numbers, the success is undeniable. In the six years since it started, more than 1,600 women and 22 business associations have benefited from things like business development, financing, and trade capacity building. And together, they’ve created more than 17,000 jobs in the region. We’ve grateful to have Zohra and Rachel here to share their perspectives about AWEP.

We’ve also built women’s business centers in Zambia and Kenya, with a third on the way in Mali. In Zambia alone, the center has helped create almost 3,000 jobs and start nearly 40 new businesses. We owe that success to many organizations represented in this room: the Caterpillar Foundation, Startup Cup, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, WEConnect International, and of course the women of AWEP. Let’s give these groups a round of applause.

We’re here this morning to thank you for your partnership, and celebrate that success. And we’re here to build on that success, and that means we need to do more. It will take effort from all of us—governments, civil society, and the private sector—to eliminate barriers for women and promote women’s full participation in international trade.

Today, the State Department is announcing a new partnership with the Global Entrepreneurship Network to help emerging entrepreneurs strengthen their businesses. Starting in Malawi, we will connect women to mentors, educators, and advisors so they can refine their ideas and get the support they need to launch and grow their businesses.

I hope this morning’s discussion will inspire all of us to expand trade opportunities for women, and to take action in whatever ways we can—from legal reform, to programs and initiatives—to empower women in Africa.

And now it’s my pleasure to introduce our exception co-host. As the Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce, and the President of the US-Africa Business Center, he helps lead the private sectors efforts to strengthen our trade relations with Africa. We’re grateful for his leadership, and that he’s able to join us here today. Please join me in welcoming Scott Eisner.