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African Women-Owned Businesses Underfunded, DC Institution Offers Solution

Women lead many small-scale enterprises across Africa, but they face challenges in gaining proper funding.  Image courtesy of Christopher Herwig via Flickr.

Despite an abundance of private and large corporations with operations in Africa, most businesses are small enterprises that are led by entrepreneurs who continuously experience challenges in obtaining funds from large institutions. The Washington D.C.-based U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) seeks to combat this by providing institutional funding to small business enterprises on the African continent, particularly women.

The USADF is a small, independent government institution with operations in 22 African countries. Established by an Act of Congress in 1979, the organization seeks to work with African governments and international agencies to provide funding to small businesses and entrepreneurs in Africa. Over half of the entrepreneurs or self-employed people in Africa are African women, according to the World Economic Forum, but National Geographic reports they rarely get funding from large institutions. 

“In all our entrepreneurial incubator programs, we mandate that 50% of participants must be women,” Travis Adkins, the CEO and president of the USADF,  said.

In 2021, the USADF awarded 170 grants for a total of $5.72 million to women and youth entrepreneurs in order to address systemic challenges and their limited access to financial resources. 

The institution has committed to providing up to $10 million in seed funding between 2020-2025 to graduates of the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE), which is a global network and incubator for women entrepreneurs headed by the State Department. USADF has provided 117 AWE alumni from 14 African countries with grants totaling $1.68 million. 

Faith Okani, a Nigerian-American senior biology major from Oakland, California, shared her thoughts on the  USADF’s initiative to support youth and women business owners in African states.

“As a Nigerian born in America, I think that most entrepreneurs in Africa being women is very inspiring. It reminds me of how my mom started a business,” Okani said.

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“There are many obstacles and barriers that are placed on women in various African countries. In terms of funding, I think that the USADF’s programs that help entrepreneurs develop their businesses and support their families are great,” she continued.

Alexa Baker is a senior international affairs major and African studies and Swahili double minor from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, who believes the vigor of female entrepreneurs in Africa places them at the forefront of economic and political development across all sectors.

“Their definition of entrepreneurship is multi-faceted and more must be done to formalize the plethora of manifestations that African women-led entrepreneurship takes. African governments must take steps to empower women selling their harvests and crafts in marketplaces,” Baker said.  

“Throughout history, African women have been at the nexus of trade and international relations and can be considered society’s first entrepreneurs and diplomats. Colonized knowledge through the written tradition has obscured this narrative,” she continued.

“Institutions involved in external analysis that rarely provides funds for women-led entrepreneurship in Africa must be educated on historical implications and socio-cultural nuances before proposing unsustainable plans,” Baker concluded.

A standalone agency with authority over its budget and institutional partnerships, the USADF has the autonomy to decide how to implement its projects, according to Adkins. Adkins says they are prioritizing supporting African women and how that is the focus of the organization’s work — addressing the workforce and financing gap among men and women in Africa.

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“There is a huge gap between financing for men and women who have businesses in Africa.  Men are more likely to get capital and investment than women, even though African women are a large percentage of business owners,” Adkins said.

Though the world officially recognized a human right to gender equality decades ago, women still endure exclusion from the upper ranks of government and business and experience social attitudes and traditions that limit their opportunities. Melanece Wesley, a Ph.D. student in the School of Social Work from Boston, believes the USADF’s programs that support women and youth are beneficial. Wesley addressed the media’s role in depicting African affairs and mentioned that she would like to support women-led enterprises in Africa.

 “The idea of women entrepreneurship in Africa is exciting,” Wesley said.

“Often, the media presents Africa, which is a diverse continent, as a monolith, including its portrayal of women… Highlighting the ideas and accomplishments of women entrepreneurs in Africa is important to counteract the media’s narrative,” she continued.

Copy edited by Nhandi Long-Shipman

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