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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Celebrating Women: "Women's Engagement In Africa's Transformation" At Columbia University's African Economic Forum 2012

Every year in the spring, we look forward to the Columbia University African Economic Conference. The conference highlights thematic areas in Africa's economic and business development as told by Africans for Africans. As an avid attendee and proud alumni I must say the Africans at Columbia never disappoint and always do a stellar job at organizing the conference. This year we had the opportunity to attend a specific panel focused on women and had so many eye opening moments, that in our opinion every woman looking to start up their own venture should know! The first of it's kind the panel titled "Women's Engagement in Africa's Economic Transformation" focused on the importance of women’s participation in the formal economic business markets. Panelists included Mary Olushoga Founder of the African Women's Power Network (AWP), Isaiah Chabala Former Zambian Ambassador and Founder of Visionary Consuting, Victoria Sulimani Counselor to the Permanent Mission of Sierra Leone, Fatmata Sesay-Kebbay Program Associate to UN Women and the Panel was moderated by Sara Minard professor at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). The panel focused on three main concepts, the shift of African women from the informal to the formal business sectors, the importance of women's political participation as these changes occur, and the importance of tracking the successes of these women to ensure they receive appropriate supports from their governments in-order to have successful businesses. 

Panelists From right Olushoga, Chabalah, Sulimani, Kebbay,and Minard 
From the liberation of  African colonies to present day, women have played a role in the economy through various means. From being market women, home makers and now business owners; women are making strides in the African business markets both informal and formal and must be celebrated. The panel highlighted some successes that women have made and the challenges which they continue to face. The panelists began by agreeing that women have always been entrepreneurs for as long as we can remember on the African continent. Whether it is recognized as such is a different question. The shift that is beginning to happen is that more women are moving from the "informal" sector to the "formal" business sectors. In the past women were much involved in food production and agriculture. However more recently women  are beginning to move into non traditional markets such as transportation, minerals, communication and technology.This shift can be attributed to the fact that women want to become successful in their businesses, and are understanding the importance of having registered businesses. The panelists  highlighted success stories on the continent where women are making serious strides in the past decade. In the food production arena Ms Kebbay stated  "statistics show that women contribute 70-90 percent of food production but they only receive about 10 percent back in profits, and own 1 % of the means of production." This inequity is one to pay close attention to and even more of a reason for women to gain more control of their businesses so that they reap the benefits and by moving into the formal markets. Women can register their businesses and begin to make demands for resources such as loans, tax credit that can make them reap the most profit from their businesses. An interesting point made was that a representative from the Sierra Leone Permanent Mission Ms. Sulimani who mentioned that women have actually been in formal sectors prior to many political instabilities on the continent. She referred to these women as the Mama Benz, big time business owners who were the bread winners in Africa during the late 1990s and owned high end cars such as a Mercedes due to such success in their businesses. 

Women play a critical role in governments and with the help of  leaders in the government and women's organizations, women's participation in the formal business sector will be recognized and supported. The panelists discussed that there is a direct linkage between women's economic development and womens political participation. Ms Kebbay from UN Women mentioned that we must not overlook the participation of women in the political realm and how it directly impacts economic policies. The importance of women's participation in government  along their male counterparts will give more information, tools and resources that women need to enter into the formal market.  Once there is proof to show governments on the major role women play in their economies they will be more inclined to provide resources to women including tax credit, loans etc to encourage more women business owners to participate in the formal business sector.  Government's also play a major role in maintaining stability in their regions for markets to grow and for women to scale up their businesses. Countries such as Rwanda, Mozambique, South Africa and Uganda were said to have strong political participation of women in their governments and this in turn has impacted women's economic growth and enhancement of resources for women business owners in those societies. The importance of Non government organizations (NGO) participation was raised by Chabalah who stated that NGOs should work closely with governments to advocate for women. NGOs working for women's rights should work beyond gender ministries in the governments such as the ministry for gender affairs in-order to gain overall support for supporting women's economic development. In the past, women's organizations only engaged with the gender ministries in countries, but recently organizations such as UN women have been working in general across the board with various government machinery. This is important in-order to advocate for the recognition of women's economic involvement, push for more women in government, gain support on projects that increase women's economic stability. 

How can we account for the contributions that women are making? It must go beyond anecdotal evidence and move towards tracking data of success stories of  women and how they contribute to the overall GDP in their countries. Participants discussed the importance of using data as a means to show how women are contributing to the economy. Using data to prove that women do contribute to both the formal and informal market will strengthen the argument that women play a huge role in a country's economic development. Mary Olushoga founder of the African Women’s Power network an organization that tracks start up business owners and conducts interviews to tabulate how many women are contributing to the workforce, harped on the point that “Their success stories matter”. The trend of data being tracked was also echoed by other panelists as they mentioned that this is the only way one can begin to prove to governments that women’s contribution to the GDP is far beyond what they may think.  An even more insightful look is to look at sex disaggregated data Ms Kebbay mentioned that this will help differentiate the various sectors women are contributing to. Ms Olushoga mentioned that we have to be able to show our work and one way her organization is looking to do this is the capture the stories of the women business owners from start up until 5 years later to measure success and growth of their businesses including an increase in employees, property ownership and other additional resources. 

The issue of women's participation in the formal business market and in global market is one that is exciting for the African continent. As much as women have been doing this work in the informal sector it becomes a challenge and a matter of how confident they are to brave the wild of the new terrain.The panel ended in a hopeful and positive spirit and that women also need emotional support as they switch into the formal business sector. Thus women's organizations such as AWP, UN Women are  working towards ensuring that women feel supported, that their contributions to the country's economy is tracked to enable the right supports rendered to them. Women are surely leading the way in contributing to their country's betterment and with the right advocates and leadership positions the next ten years on the continent is a sight we can't wait to see and experience! 

To find out more about the conference and future conferences visit their facebook page at

Keep Changing Africa,


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