After three years of meeting virtually, the African Women Entrepreneurship Cooperative (AWEC) convened in Nairobi April 12-14 at its first in-person meeting since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The gathering gave female entrepreneurs from Africa and the diaspora a chance to hear from experts and each other about how to improve and grow their businesses.
AWEC is a yearlong program created through the Center for Global Enterprise, a nonprofit research institute in New York. The program has been in place for five years, CGE Director Christopher Caine told VOA.
“It was designed to help women business owners in Africa build resilient businesses," Caine said. "We do that by focusing in on their management skills capacity as well as all things a business leader needs to accomplish.”
Dawn Leaness, the managing director of AWEC, told VOA about 200 women are selected each year from approximately 3,000 applicants. She said they focus on experiential learning.
“Every single woman here is an entrepreneur," she said. "They are running their own business, and during their program, they use their business as a case study. So, they learn about a topic - say, digital marketing - and they go and rewrite their digital marketing strategy for their business the next day. We’ll go over financial management, and they’ll go and bring you their balance sheet.”
Elizabeth Njoroge of the Liz Njoroge Collection said she’s been in business for 20 years but was hardly making any money.
“The majority of us entrepreneurs are in business because we are not making money, we don’t know what we are doing, but we keep on going one day at a time and hoping that things will be well," she said. "But when you are doing business, you have structures and systems in your business such that if any time you deviate from your destination, it’s very easy for you to go back and realize, 'I went wrong here, go back and correct it.' ”
Uzoamaka Igweike, managing director of Loom Craft Chocolate, a Nigerian cocoa bean processing and chocolate-making company in Abuja, said AWEC has helped her by improving her sales pitch and getting her to focus on the customer.
"Going through that 12-month program, the difference is clear between when we started and when we ended," Igweike said. "When we started, we were selling to stores mostly in Abuja, but now we are in almost 100 stores nationwide.”
Also participating was U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman. As a former CEO of eBay and Hewlett Packard, Whitman graduated from Princeton and Harvard universities with only 10% of her classes being women. But things have improved, she told the group.
“There’s been an enormous transition, but what I would tell you from having worked in business for the last almost now 45 years, it’s harder for women. It just is," she said. "It’s easier today than when I graduated from school, but it is still hard. But from time to time we can be smarter, we can work harder, we can have that perseverance. That is necessary as an entrepreneur.”
Harriette Chiggai, Kenya’s presidential adviser on women’s rights, was the keynote speaker. She told VOA that no matter what difficulties they encounter, female entrepreneurs should keep going.
"The one key thing I wish to take away is financial literacy," she said. "Every woman needs to be able to train, capacity build, to be able to manage their finances.”
While many women earn money, it’s important to also know how to make use of that money, she said.