African women entrepreneurs from 35 countries have called for more support from lenders and governments to help them benefit from the African Continental Free Trade Area. Meeting in Cameroon’s capital for the U.N.-sponsored African Women Entrepreneur Forum, the women say their businesses are mostly small, informal, and suffer discrimination.
More than 200 women from 35 countries are meeting in Yaounde for the second African Women Entrepreneurs Forum under the theme, “Female Entrepreneurs, Challenges and Opportunities.”
The African Continental Free Trade Area that started in 2021 brought great hope that a market of 1.2 billion people would boost women-run businesses and reduce poverty.
But while Africa’s women entrepreneurs still see opportunities, they also face many challenges.
Former Interim President of the Central African Republic Catherine Samba-Panza spoke Wednesday night at the forum.
She said many women are missing out on the opportunities of trade integration because their small businesses have low productivity and get little or no funding from governments and lenders.
Panza says as CAR’s former president and an African female leader she wants African governments and funding agencies to know that a majority of Africa’s 30% of women entrepreneurs need assistance. She says the COVID-19 pandemic, climate disruptions, persistent armed conflicts in Africa and Russia’s war in Ukraine are affecting most female-owned businesses.
Panza added that many female businesses in the C.A.R., Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria have been forced to close because of armed conflicts.
Women entrepreneurs say they often face harassment and discrimination in Africa’s male-dominated trade.
Niger’s director for the promotion of rural enterprises Bissso Nakatuma led a 15-member delegation to the three-day Yaoundé forum.
She says women who want to export their farm produce and benefit from opportunities offered by the African Continental Free Trade Area are targeted by customs and police officers who want bribes. Nakatuma says women are forced to depend on their families and communities to fund their businesses because banks refuse to give loans to female investors.
The forum demanded a stop to discriminatory practices against women entrepreneurs. It also called for more access to financing for women-led businesses, including export credits and guarantees.
Achilles Bassilekin is Cameroon’s Minister of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. He says Africa’s economic ministers are committed to solving the challenges for women that were raised at the forum.
“I am convinced that women entrepreneurs from various countries of Africa will go back to their respective countries with a clearer vision, a clearer picture of what the continental FTA [Free Trade Area] is about and how they can take advantage of this wonderful opportunity, which happens to be the [African] Continental Free Trade Area,” said Bassilekin.
Despite the challenges, the forum said female entrepreneurs this year contributed an estimated $350 billion to Africa’s economic growth, about 13% of the continent’s Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.
The U.N. says the female economy is the world’s largest emerging market with the potential to add $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025.