Woman leaning over table flanked by two people (D.A. Peterson/Dept. of State)
Beauty queens from Botswana wear GofaModimo Sithole's gowns at pageants, and she designed the clothes the country's president and Cabinet wore at its celebration of 50 years of independence. Getting started in business is difficult, she says, but if you dare to do what you love, "your energy will always be there." (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Mauritanian entrepreneur Safietou Kane was just 23 but had an international business degree when she decided to launch her own business in Tékane, a town with 20,000 inhabitants in which her family had roots.

She buys, mills and markets rice from Tékane’s farmers. When she started they were struggling because the government had stopped purchasing all they produced.

Woman with arms outstretched in bright orange sleeves (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Safietou Kane, 25, of Mauritania never saw her future in agriculture, but the plight of rice farmers in her hometown led her to open a rice distribution company. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

“I did not want the rice agriculture to stop in my village,” says Kane, who distributes 150 tons of Maaro Njawaan rice monthly. “It’s cheaper than imported rice and better quality because it’s fresh and has no chemicals.”

She benefits from the State Department’s African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, which brings women from more than two dozen countries to the U.S. each summer on an International Visitor Leadership Program project for workshops and meetings with business experts who have know-how on growing enterprises.

It’s one of many opportunities provided under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which eases trade between the United States and sub-Saharan countries.

Keeping good company

Kane was joined by Christy Shakuyungwa, who at an earlier startup bootcamp run by the U.S. Embassy in Namibia won the prize for the best business idea. She had presented her plan to sell dolls with features and outfits matching the country’s 13 ethnic groups. (The dolls she makes are similar to the Ntomb’entle, or “beautiful girl,” dolls sold in South Africa.)

Shakuyungwa calls her enterprise Taati & Friends and aspires to sell dolls with features and clothing unique to every African country.

Botswana’s Miss Universe and Miss World contestants have worn GofaModimo Sithole’s African-inspired gowns. The Ten Talents Ltd. founder also dressed President Ian Khama and his Cabinet for last year’s 50th anniversary celebration of independence. She joined the program for African businesswomen in the U.S.

“I knew from a very young age I wanted to be my own boss — and have more money,” she says.

Three dolls dressed in African fashion (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Christy Shakuyungwa, a Namibian metallurgist, makes Taati & Friends dolls with features, garments of Namibia’s 13 ethnic groups. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Zemen Tefera, whose luxury handbags are sold in five-star hotels in Addis Ababa, joined the program. The Amour Leather Goods proprietor has a master’s degree in software engineering but “fashion is what makes me alive. Some say I’m crazy, but I’m trying to show everybody I’m worthy to do this business.”

Working hard to succeed

In Burkina Faso, participant Wendinda Delphine’s Association Wendingoudi employs 30 women to weave and dye fabrics sold in a crafts shop.

“I started weaving from the age of 7. I had to come back from school at midday to prepare the thread for my mother so she could feed me and my sisters and pay our school fees,” says Delphine. “She taught me that life isn’t easy. You have to work hard. I want to help other women pay their children’s tuition.”

Woman holding folder and wearing bright African clothing (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Senegalese designer Rama Diaw has travelled the world and found customers in Europe for her dresses made from African fabrics. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Rama Diaw of Dakar, Senegal, sells her stylish dresses in France and Germany. Even as a schoolgirl, “I was always checking out the tailors, asking questions and thinking of things I’d do slightly differently.”

“At 15 or 16, you don’t really know what the word ‘entrepreneur’ is, but I wanted to work for myself,” says Diaw.

While women own a small share of the world’s wealth, U.S. embassies offer many activities to spur women to open small- and medium-sized businesses.