Solidarity between women entrepreneurs in Africa and Japan amplified through partnerships

June 13, 2022
TICAD Pre Event African and Japanese Women Entrepreneurs

UNDP Regional Bureau Director for Africa Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa highlighted that Africa’s women are the heartbeat of entrepreneurship and trade.


Across Africa, much like the rest of the world, women face unique challenges in starting and growing their businesses, according to panelists at a recently held webinar as part of the lead-up to the 8th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD8).

Co-organized by UNDP, the African Development Bank, the African Union Development Agency-NEPAD, and supported by the Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai), the online symposium organised on 27 May seized the moment of the official mission to Japan by the UNDP Regional Bureau Director for Africa, Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa, which aimed to enhance solidarity, share lessons learned, and facilitate networking between women entrepreneurs in Africa and Japan.

Opening the floor, the event's master of ceremonies and member of the Africa Project Team for the Keizai Doyukai, Ms. Taeko Nagayama said the symposium is a rare opportunity to introduce African and Japanese women entrepreneurs, who are not only active and successful in business, but also contribute to society, to share their experiences and views on starting businesses in Africa.

Chairman of the Africa Project Team for Keizai Doyukai and co-chair of the Japan Business Council for Africa, Mr. Mutsuo Iwai, noted that Japan has been working hand-in-hand with the public and private sectors to achieve sustainable development in Africa. “Japanese business executives have a strong desire to grow together with Africa, a continent which has great potential for growth. In the current COVID-19 climate, particular attention has been paid to areas of healthcare, agriculture, education, green and digital,” he said.

He added that the role of African and Japanese start-up entrepreneurs with passion and energy are essential to solving social issues and noted that dialogue was vital for women entrepreneurs to share knowledge and experience. “We also hope to create the mechanisms to support start-ups that are active in Africa, in preparation for TICAD8, and that today’s exchange will be fruitful for everyone, and lead to the development of both Africa and Japan,” he stressed.

Ms. Eziakonwa noted that of the millions of women across the globe who have started businesses over the last five years, the highest percentage of these women reside in Africa, referring to the finding from the 2019/2020 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 

 “The facts are convincing. Historically, Africa’s women are the heartbeat of entrepreneurship and trade. They take risks, invest in ventures, and know how to turn a profit. We must seize the innate power of women and invest in them as the drivers of global progress and more so, Africa’s socio-economic transformation,” said Ms. Eziakonwa.

Ms. Eziakonwa noted that the recent African Continental Free Trade Area agreement is valuable in creating opportunities in value chains like leather, textiles, agriculture, automotive, pharmaceuticals, and other products. The Regional Director said UNDP’s Futures Report 2021 includes concrete recommendations, which can be a useful reference point for investing in the Made in Africa Revolution.

She also underscored that a key barrier to female entrepreneurship was the lack of access to loans and credit from commercial banks due to low start-up capital and little or no collateral security.

Mr. Takashi Hanajiri, Head of the Asia External Representation Office AfDB, mentioned AfDB's support tools for women entrepreneurs and shared powerful messages from the AfDB President and senior female executives to inspire and encourage women entrepreneurs in his opening remarks. The messages included that to truly achieve the empowerment of women it is necessary to consider access to productive resources in terms of assets, financial and technical services, and their agency in terms of control of resources and profits, capabilities, self-confidence, and decision-making power.

Ms. Fati N'zi-Hassane, Head of Human Capital and Institutions Development at AUDA-NEPAD, echoed the need for greater investment to boost the business ventures of women.

Despite Africa having the highest rate of entrepreneurship in the world with women making up 58% of the self-employed population, she said women remain underserved in terms of finance and access to meaningful business opportunities and access to relevant training.

“At AUDA-NEPAD we have learnt that services need to intentionally target women and be tailored accordingly, if we hope to support women entrepreneurs in sufficient numbers,” she said. To this end, AUDA-NEPAD has launched the Gender Makes Sense programme, which is a capacity development support programme for public and private entrepreneurship and vocational training providers in the agricultural sector. “Whether from Africa or Japan, women entrepreneurs face similar challenges and adversities that lie in the social and cultural norms of the countries that they belong to. This is why we are here expressing solidarity and making sure that Japanese women can trade in Africa and African women can trade in Japan,” noted Ms. N'zi-Hassane.

Moderator of the symposium, Prof. Meiko Ikegame expressed her appreciation of Ms. Eziakonwa to come all way to Japan in order to address the event, which indicated her full commitment to this subject. She recalled Ms. Eziakonwa’s effective leadership with a vision and commitment as the UN Resident Coordinator in Lesotho where they met 10 years ago for the first time. 

Prof. Ikegame pointed out that Africa perceives Japan through Japanese brands such as Toyota and Sony, but people in Africa usually do not know much about the people of Japan as Japanese people, especially women.   

“It is true that Africa can learn a lot from Japan in terms of economic development, but when it comes to social issues, Japan can also learn so much from Africa. Japan ranks around 120 out of 150 countries with regard to women’s position in society.  Many African countries, including Rwanda, are far ahead of Japan.  

In recent years, Japanese women entrepreneurs, who are active and successful in businesses that help solve social issues in Africa, have been in the spotlight, but they remain a small number in light of the magnitude of current development challenges. There are many Japanese women entrepreneurs who are interested in doing business in and with Africa. However, they are unable to travel to Africa due to difficulty in networking, lack of information and the current travel restrictions imposed by COVID-19, which prevent them from realising their business ideas,” she pointed out.

Professor Ikegame, said the symposium presents a unique opportunity for African and Japanese women entrepreneurs to share their experiences, create networks and learn from each other.  

At the outset of the thematic session, Prof. Ikegame pointed that, the agriculture sector is very crucial for the African economy.  The ongoing war in Ukraine has caused  a food crisis not only in Africa but also for the entire world.   The current situation indicates the importance of self efficiency in food supply and food security in the continent.  

Moving into the Food and Agriculture session, South African-based Reel Gardening Founder and CEO Claire Reid underscored how women with innovative business ideas are still being rejected by investors and financial institutions.

At 16 years-old, Ms. Reid saw how difficult gardening could be in South Africa, and as a result developed a paper seed strip technology that not only allows aspiring gardeners to plant seeds at the correct spacing and depth to reduce water usage and increase germination rates, but also help feed families who would otherwise go hungry. “I had conversations with corporations, governments and NGOs to find ways for us to partner, but no one would take the leap. I searched for investors willing to take a risk on a new agricultural technology that was geared toward everyday people with limited incomes – and no one would come on board,” said Ms. Reid. Although her business is now thriving, she noted that women still struggle to garner the interest of investors to expand already successful business models.

Following, from Japan, Ms. Chiharu Oyama, the founder of JUJUBODY, a natural self-care brand inspired by African nature and specifically the moringa tree, recounted some of the logistical and administrative hurdles she had to overcome to get her business off the ground. “I experienced two challenges. Originally, I wanted to introduce finished products to Japan but there is a strict policy around food safety standards among the countries. Secondly, I didn’t know how to increase the recognition of Moringa in the Japanese market due to the current drug policy,” said Ms. Oyama. In spite of these roadblocks, Ms. Oyama persevered and now her business allows more than 200 Ghanaian moringa producers to teach some 18,000 local farmers how to grow, harvest and process the plant. On how she bridged the divide between Africa and Japan from a production and sales perspective, she said networking and having business partners in Ghana was pivotal in the successful launch of JUJUBODY.

 Prof. Ikegame pointed out that introducing moringa to Japan was an innovative initiative as a health- oriented product based on African tradition and that engaging the local community in the moringa business was a critical aspect for the success.  On  agribusiness in  South Africa, she also pointed out deep value of engaging rural communities, especially the indigenous community as the current emerging issues of stability and peace in South Africa depend on how the local ingenious populations get access to new technology and skills for increased agricultural production and viable markets. 

At the Fashion and Cosmetic session, Tunisian business owner Fatma Ben Soltane, who launched her sportswear line, FIERCE Sportswear, in 2019, demonstrated another example of how women entrepreneurs have to kick-start businesses without the financial backing from banks. FIERCE Sportswear focuses on sustainability; its best-selling leggings are made from recycled plastic bottles. Other items are made from reused Tunisian cotton. “It’s much more expensive for us because Tunisia is not an economy of scale and to push eco-friendly products we had to keep the margins on products low to encourage people to buy,” she explained.

Ms. Ben Soltane stressed that African fashion and business ideas need government financial support, which could assist women entrepreneurs exhibit their products both locally and internationally.

 Following, from Japan, Ms. Chizu Nakamoto, the COO of RICCI EVERYDAY, which employs single mothers in Uganda to produce high-quality African print fashion and accessory products for export to Japan agreed that networking with African business contacts was vital in maintaining the growth of her brand. She said with determination there would be ways around running a business between in one country while based in another.

“I have two totally different companies between Japan and Uganda and to avoid travelling back and forth, I have trained and assigned managers to run day-to-day operations in Uganda,” said Ms. Nakamoto. She encouraged her African counterparts to dream big and not be afraid to take their unique designs and talent to the international market, which she said is possible through the feedback system and networking channels.

On the fashion business Prof. Ikegame stated that there is a general trend to appreciate African concept of fashion in the world starting from Paris and Tokyo.  For any entrepreneurship in Japan and Africa requires courage and an innovative approach.  Both speakers succeeded in establishing the business under local conditions and demonstrated their self-confidence before financial resources. Self-confidence is a big part of entrepreneurship.  In Uganda, it is remarkable that the initiative of business provided single mothers with opportunities to build  their own self-confidence.  

At the last thematic session on green and digital, Ms. Mercy George Igbafe, CEO of Nigeria-based and female-led Tech business Learntor, highlighted the imbalance in support for female-owned businesses. “As of 2021, nearly six billion dollars in tech funding has been invested in Africa. But it is shocking to note that only 8% of women-led businesses have access to that funding,” said Ms. George-Igbafe.

With Africa’s high unemployment rate, Learntor business helps bridge the technical skills gap of women and youth to increase their employability and also grow their businesses. And yet Ms. George-Igbafe still struggles to attract investors and funding to expand and bring her business to scale.

Following, from Japan, the case of Ms. Miho Sato, the co-founder of SUCRECUBE Japon Inc., which brings electricity and internet to villages in West Africa with their TUMIQUI Smart UHC Kit, a mobile solar-powered unit was introduced. Ms. Sato said their units are already supporting the health and education sectors in Senegal but can also be used in many sectors as well. “Japan’s technology and human resources development capabilities have a very high affinity with Africa. And I believe that even better synergies can be created through a strong network of women from both countries,” she said. 

On the digital and green business, Prof. Ikegame praised the decision of Ms. Saito for making a bold move from being a working mother to becoming an entrepreneur. She further applauded the courage of Ms. Igbafe to step into the tech industry, which is a male-dominated industry using mobile banking as an example. She highlighted the potential of Africa in leapfrogging technological advancement.

Panel speakers in the thematic sessions also noted that entrepreneurial opportunities for women are further complicated by administrative, ethnic and patriarchal social structures that make it difficult to cultivate business networks and identify appropriate business mentors.

With regard to IT field, Prof. Ikegame admired solid success of both speakers in the business field highly competitive with men.  In spirit of  a strong will and determinism, they have achieved remarkably, especially focusing on human capacity building, which is the core of socio economic development in Africa.  

 In conclusion, Prof. Ikegame stated that the symposium was an innovative event for women entrepreneurs from Africa and Japan to meet, interact and share their experiences and creative business ideas. She further emphasized that this kind of exchange should be encouraged in a sustainable manner and not remain as one off event.  In this regard, the co-organizers and partners were requested to capitalize on such interactive dialogues among Japanese and African women entrepreneurs and organize such events on a regular basis with a view to achieving longer term objectives of strengthening the role of women in social, economic and political development in both Africa and Japan.

Ms. Mitsue Kurihara, Vice Chairman of the Keizai Doyukai and Chairman of the Board, Value Management Institute, Inc. said women-led businesses from new perspectives are the driving force for renewed growth and social change in Japan.

In support of the continued development of Japanese businesswomen she launched, together with the Development Bank of Japan, the DBJ Women Entrepreneur Centre (WEC) to encourage and support women in new businesses.

“Since 2011, the WEC has held business competitions for Japanese female entrepreneurs and provides comprehensive support in areas including finance, network building, business matching, and start-up skills and experience,” she said. She noted that the successes of Japanese women entrepreneurs reaffirmed her conviction that it is essential to create environments that support and boost the business development of women both in Japan and Africa.

Reflecting on the discussions during the thematic session, Ms. Neima Ferreira, Principal Business Development Officer in the Gender, Women, Civil Society department of AfDB, said the 50 Million Africa Women Speak (50MWASP) platform was established in 2019 to improve the ability of women entrepreneurs to expand their business network and access information on financial and non-financial services for their business growth. “As a one-stop-shop for financial and non-financial services, we believe that the 50MWASP can support and enhance women entrepreneurs’ digital skills and enable them to use the platform and benefit from the available information and access to new markets, which is the primary focus of the platform upgrade planning,” said Ms. Ferreira.

Bringing the symposium to a close, Ms. Eziakonwa said the session, as a lead-up to TICAD8 in Tunisia in August, is a promise lens that underpins UNDP’s renewed strategic offer for Africa. “We choose to see women entrepreneurs as part of a transformative change process. The promise lens puts people first, propagating a showcase of talent, investing in creativity, resilience, and resourcefulness,” she said. 

To spark opportunities for entrepreneurs including women entrepreneurs in Africa by filling financial, technological, and skill gap, she said UNDP is developing Timbuktoo, an initiative that seeks to raise 1 billion dollars in start-up capital and to work with governments to set up the conditions necessary for innovation for the African Continental Free Trade Area to thrive.

“I invite the Government of Japan and all partners present, including Keizai Doyukai, the African Development Bank, AUDA-NEPAD and Japanese companies to rally behind Timbuktoo and advocate for the need and opportunities of women entrepreneurs and capitalise on TICAD8 as a platform for public-private partnership, co-investment and business-to-business networking,” she concluded.

To watch the proceedings: