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How Africa’s women traders are poised to drive regional integration

African women represent more than 70 per cent of workers in the informal sector. However, many women continue to face barriers to trade opportunities, such as access to raw materials, increased economies of scale, integration into regional and global value chains, technological challenges, and access to finance to name a few.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in partnership with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), is delivering a series of 3-day capacity building workshops in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire for women traders and producers in the ECOWAS region with the aim of guiding them on market entry and operations under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

The first workshop kicked off today in Accra, Ghana – the headquarters of the AfCFTA Secretariat and convenes 20 women traders from the 5 English-speaking member states of the ECOWAS region (Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Gambia). They represent the agricultural, agroprocessing, textiles, and arts and crafts sectors, as well as trade development agencies.

Dr. Bolanle Adetoun, Acting Director of the ECOWAS Gender Development Centre, who represented ECOWAS Commissioner for Social Affairs and Gender, Dr Siga Fatima Jagne, commented that women traders “play critical roles in African economies. The capacity building programme is intended to highlight opportunities within the AfCFTA for ECOWAS traders, especially women, and contribute to an understanding of strategies and approaches to enhance value addition for goods and services within the framework of the AfCFTA.”

The workshop aims to foster direct linkages between SMEs in the ECOWAS region and SMEs and trade groups in Central, East and Southern Africa and various trade facilitation agencies will provide practical information to guide market entry and operations for SMEs. Sessions include topics on: understanding the AfCFTA, ECOWAS and the AfCFTA, importing and exporting in the AfCFTA, AfCFTA opportunities in Central, East and Southern Africa, financing scaling in the AfCFTA, and operational tools of the AfCFTA.

Women and youth, two groups with the potential to drive the transformation of Africa’s economies, must be mainstreamed into national and continental frameworks in order to guarantee and fully harness the benefits of the AfCFTA. “Women must lead the way for economic independence in Africa,” emphasized Silver Ojakol, Chief of Staff at the AfCFTA Secretariat. “40% of intra-African trade is dominated by micro, small and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs). These businesses are mostly managed by women and youth and form a significant segment of the export portfolio within Africa.”

The 3-day workshop will highlight the requirements for exports to various African countries, discuss e-commerce as a tool for exploring new markets, and provide an overview of financing instruments that can be utilized by women-led SMEs as they scale across borders.

“Women are Africa’s traders. If you look at any market, and in fact any border of this continent, the majority of traders will be women,” remarked Silke Hollander, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative in Ghana. “However, women remain at the lower rung of value chains in the agricultural and services sectors. The AfCFTA must account for and address the challenges women face.”

Trading under the preferential terms of the AfCFTA commenced on 1 January 2021. The AfCFTA will create an African market for goods and services covering 1.2 billion people and a combined Gross Domestic Product of US$3 trillion, building on the progress towards integration achieved in regional economic communities such as ECOWAS. All ECOWAS member states have signed the AfCFTA Agreement, and 12 of 15 member States have deposited instruments of ratification.

Representing the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Ghana, Mrs. Kosi Yankey, CEO of the Ghana Enterprises Agency, urged the participants to “work together and not in silos”, adding, “we want an inclusive strategy for implementation. 80% of businesses are SMEs and we cannot implement the AfCFTA without focusing on SMEs. That would leave out a whole generation of economic development in any nation.”

The AfCFTA will create opportunities for traders, producers, service providers and investors originating in the ECOWAS region to source cheaper inputs, scale businesses, increase exports, especially of value-added products, and develop beneficial regional value chains; intra-African trade records a higher incidence of trade in higher value goods , highlighting market opportunity for producers originating in ECOWAS.

The workshop series is part of a larger capacity building programme on the AfCFTA, which commenced with a training of trainers in Freetown, Sierra Leone on 7-9 April. A second workshop will convene French and Portugese-speaking traders and trade associations in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire on 20-22 April. The series is also organized in partnership with the AU Commission, AfCFTA Secretariat, UN Economic Commission for Africa, the International Trade Centre, Afrexim Bank and GIZ.

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