When the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was launched on January 1, 2021, many female entrepreneurs hoped that the world’s largest free-trade area, with a market of 1.2 billion people, would boost their businesses and reduce endemic poverty.
But they are missing out on the opportunities because their businesses are mostly small, have low productivity and get little funding from governments and agencies, several women told DW.
Female business owners say they have also struggled to obtain visas and documents they need to export their goods.
At a poultry farm in Cameroon’s capital Yaounde, the female farm owner said her 30,000 chickens, destined for markets in Gabon, have yet to leave.
Bissso Nakatuma, Niger’s director for the promotion of rural enterprises, said female entrepreneurs in her country experienced similar difficulties exporting goods from the hinterlands to neighbouring states.
“Women entrepreneurs face a lot of harassment from customs officers when exporting goods to benefit from opportunities offered by the African Continental Free Trade Area. They are particularly targeted for bribes by customs and police officers,” Nakatuma said.
The UN estimate that 70% of informal cross-border trade in Africa is conducted by women traders.
She also lamented how banks have refused “to give loans to women, and so they have to depend solely on their families, communities and their little savings.”
Catherine Samba-Panza, a lawyer and politician who served as interim President of the Central African Republic from 2014 to 2016, ponted out that women represent 20% of African entrepreneurs. In addition to gender-specific challeges, they also have to contend with rexent difficulties experienced by the whole continent.
“There was the COVID-19 pandemic, then persistent climate disruptions and armed conflicts in Africa and Russia’s war in Ukraine,” Samba-Penza said.
This month, Cameroon hosted hundreds of female entrepreneurs from 35 African countries for a UN-sponsored African Women Entrepreneur Forum under the heading “Female Entrepreneurs, Challenges and Opportunities.”
More than 200 women attended the meeting in Yaounde.
The forum requested access to finance and financial products adapted to women-led businesses’ needs, including export credits, guarantees and loans.
The participants concluded that empowered women could help reduce endemic poverty and make rural areas in Africa a better place to live.
Access to land for women
Cameroonian-born economic analyst Serge Guiffo told DW that women should be given greater access to land as well.
“If you look at women, they are the ones feeding us. They use the land, but they don’t own it. We buy rice in Thailand, in Vietnam, we buy wheat in Ukraine. We need to change that; and to change that, we need land security,” Guiffo said.
Should women get access to land “you will see many people leaving the cities to go back to the communities, because the quality of life will be better, and their incomes will be better than people have in cities,” he told DW.
Female entrepreneurs in 2022 contributed $350 billion (€337 billion) to Africa’s economy, the equivalent of about 13% of the continent’s GDP.
Africa’s women now want more opportunities to benefit from Africa’s free trade area and help develop the continent.
Edited by Cristina Krippahl
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