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African Women Entrepreneurs Come to Washington

By Jeffery Miles

On July 13, the Meridian International Center, in conjunction with the State Department, hosted for the second year a product showcase to highlight the business leadership of 22 African women entrepreneurs from 13 sub-Sahara countries who have been selected to participate in the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP).

The State Department and Meridian collaborate to host international exchange programs through the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), “which brings approximately 5,000 current and emerging leaders from around the world annually to meet with, learn from, and exchange views with their professional peers in the U.S,” according to the Meridian Center. The goal of the IVLP is to educate on “U.S. politics, society and culture” while creating lasting relationships.

One of these IVLP programs, the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, “aims to address the importance of and build a pipeline for women’s business leadership.” Globally women make up 50 percent of the population, 40 percent of the workforce, but only maintain 1 percent of the wealth. Yet given the opportunity, when women do make money, the majority is normally invested in their families and communities, which in turn helps to build a country’s economy.


Joselyne Umutoniwase's display for her company, Rwanda Clothing.

This year’s AWEP cohort was nominated for their business acumen in the areas of agriculture, accessories and apparel. Meridian’s second annual AWEP Product Showcase gave women an opportunity “to display products, network and share their inspirational stories with the Washington community and Meridian’s network of global leaders.” These women came from all across sub-Sahara Africa, ranging from the small West African nation of Liberia to the continental economic powerhouses of Nigeria and South Africa.

Some programs have been concretely established in their communities and even branched out with their own programs to help the next generation of women leaders such as Joselyne Umutoniwase of Rwanda. She is the founder, designer and managing director of Rwanda Clothing, a fashion design and home décor company. Founded in 2012, Rwanda Clothing has grown to support 25 permanent employees and sustain stores in major commercial areas of the capital city Kigali. In addition, Umutoniwase designed an internship program that mentors recent university graduates with an interest in fashion to prepare them to enter the industry.

The products on display were diverse, ranging from jewelry, cosmetics, scarves and agricultural production. Tanzania’s Khadija Said is the founder and managing director of Haiba ya Afrika, which processes Asali ya Bibi Natural Bee Honey, which translates into “granny’s honey” to honor African women. Said’s primary responsibilities include supervising the collection of raw bee honey, overseeing production, monitoring staff development, and managing the growth and expansion of Haiba ya Afrika. Tanzania is a fast-growing nation with its commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, set to become a megacity (i.e. one with a population over 10 million) by the 2030s. Said’s honey company is just one example of how Tanzania can effectively harness to its burgeoning population to develop the economy, instead of putting additional strain on it.


Khadija Said is the founder and manager of Haiba ya Afrika, which processes Asali ya Bibi natural bee honey.

I spoke with Akinyi E. Odongo, the founder and CEO of Akinyi Odongo KENYA, a high-end fashion brand that creates African-inspired haute couture. Their mission is to design, produce and distribute apparel using innovative designs, quality fabrics, customized hand stitching, competitive pricing and an efficient distribution system. She has several high-profile clients, including Kenya’s first lady.

Akinyi, an award-winning international haute couture designer, was born in a small west Kenyan village and never saw herself becoming an international designer. She began as a one-woman show, working out of her house. Her goal was to create a “high-end Kenyan fashion brand” through traditional Kenyan attire.

For example, one of the products she takes the most pride in, the Maasai Shuka trench coat, is made from materials used traditionally by the Maasai community, but Akinyi takes the creation to another level of luxury. She has earned recognition for her contribution to the African fashion industry, such as being named the director of the MEFA Institute of Design, a training facility that offers courses in fashion design. Akinyi also has created Fashion Agenda Africa (FAA), a platform that gives up-and-coming fashion entrepreneurs a chance “to connect, share and grow.”


Kenyan first lady Margaret Gakuo Kenyatta dressed in Akinyi's designer clothing.

In 2014, during Origin Africa, a fashion show in Kenya, Akinyi was lucky enough to have the first lady of Kenya, Margaret Gakuo Kenyatta, sport her apparel on the runway. Kenyatta loved her clothes so much that Akinyi has been dressing her for high-profile events ever since. Akinyi noted how this has helped her business grow because “people see the first lady wearing her clothes and instantly want to know where she got them.”

Many of her products use fabrics that were hand-woven in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, and Kenya. This creates a market not only for Kenyans, but also provides a source of income for the handloom weavers across the continent.

Akinyi emphasizes showing the world “the positive side of Africa” rather than what the media normally depicts: poverty, war and famine. Instead, she hopes her business will illustrate the talent and resilience of the African continent. Her products have already spread to Europe, America and parts of Africa. Kenya is still a difficult place for women, but Akinyi has demonstrated that with determination and positivity, success is possible no matter where one is.


Jeffery Miles is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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