Traveling from 14 nations across the African continent, 39 international exchange alumni convened in Accra, Ghana in June 2019 for the Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminar (Alumni TIES) on “Strengthening Business and Trade for Women Entrepreneurs in Africa.” Representing 13 U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs and varying professional roles, including professors, CEOs, managing directors, journalists, business consultants, and social entrepreneurs, the participants spent the week discussing strategies for how to effectively support and expand women-led entrepreneurial ecosystems in their countries.
On the first day, Assistant Secretary of State Marie Royce of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs opened the seminar with a keynote address to an audience of Alumni TIES participants and local press. Assistant Secretary Royce announced the Academy of Women’s Entrepreneurs (AWE), the U.S. Department of State’s new program that launched the day before the seminar in Ghana, joining AWE programs in other countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Pacific Islands. AWE is an online training program on women’s entrepreneurship developed through a partnership between Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Management and Freeport-McMoRan, for women entrepreneurs around the world to engage in an U.S-style education with guided facilitation from local alumni, women business leaders, and key interlocutors to ensure business development.
Immediately following Assistant Secretary Royce’s speech, Alumni TIES participants showcased their businesses’ goods and services at a “World Entrepreneur’s Café.” The room echoed the vibrancy and feel of a traditional marketplace as fellow participants, guests from the U.S. Embassy Accra, and local press buzzed from table to table exploring how participant entrepreneurs were working to promote women’s entrepreneurship.
The day did not end there, as participants also had the chance to speak via Facebook Live with Zoë Dean-Smith of Vital Voices, an organization that invests in women leaders to expand their skills and accelerate their initiatives to improve their communities. Participants asked Zoë questions about sustaining effective and successful mentorship programs and building a better business climate for women. Continuing their conversations into the night, participants visited an art exhibit at Gallery 1957 and the iconic Independence Square.
On the second day of the seminar, participants attended meetings at Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) Incubator, Mobile Web Ghana, and Soronko Academy. At MEST, an entrepreneurial training program and incubator for entrepreneurs across Africa, participants learned how MEST supports and equips new entrepreneurs with the business planning acumen and technology experience they need to move their businesses to the next level. Florence Toffa, CEO of Mobile Web Ghana and an international exchange alumna, shared how Mobile Web Ghana, a technology and entrepreneurship hub that is dedicated to empowering youth to enact change in their own communities, is using technology to support individuals who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs in Ghana. Regina Agyare, CEO of Soronko Academy and also an international exchange alumna, shared how she is working with underserved girls in Ghana and Burkina Faso to obtain useful technical skills such as coding and software development to improve their career opportunities.
Throughout the week, participants also shared their personal stories and lessons learned, deliberating on several subtopics of entrepreneurship. Topics included how to build and maintain sustainable support systems for women entrepreneurs, how to create relevant and effective mentor/mentee relationships, how to mobilize small and medium-sized business across borders, and how to integrate digital platforms into existing business processes. This extensive range of topics sparked meaningful conversations as participants recognized the similarities in each other’s respective struggles and successes in their entrepreneurial journeys, whether in agribusiness, beauty and fashion, film and media, or business consulting. The connections and partnerships formed across countries was the most significant outcome of the seminar.
On the final day, Kafui Djonou from the USAID West Africa Regional Economic Growth Office spoke about the programs and initiatives her office is leading to help businesses in West Africa take advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). She also answered questions from the participants on how they can effectively extend their business services regionally and beyond the continent. Later that day, U.S. Ambassador to Ghana Stephanie Sullivan closed the seminar with her final remarks to the participants. In her speech, she commended the participants on their projects and programs to support women’s entrepreneurship in their communities and advised them to share their businesses and nonprofit ventures with the U.S. Embassies and Consulates in their countries.
Alumni TIES participants can apply for a grant of up to $10,000 to implement a community project related to the seminar theme. In Accra, they started to plan the mission, structure, and direction of their own community initiatives. Participants expressed enthusiasm about the small grants program and are looking forward to working on community engagement projects to develop the skills of women entrepreneurs. They each showcased their ideas during a pitch competition. Some of the project ideas included a job creation scheme of teaching others how to market products created from recycled materials, a technical skills capacity development program for 250 women to learn how to access formal markets, and a digital platform to inform women entrepreneurs about the commerce regulations of other African nations in order to promote cross-border trading.
This cohort of Alumni TIES participants left their mark not only in Accra, but more importantly on each other. After insightful participant-led sessions, inspiring guest speakers, and countless networking opportunities, the World Learning Alumni TIES team is confident that the participants are inspired and motivated to lead initiatives to increase the number of women-led businesses, strengthen women’s capacity to enter and succeed in the workforce, and create sustainable mentoring communities for future generations of women.
The Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by World Learning.