A Toolbox for Women Entrepreneurs in COMESA

Date: Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Nomad, a chic handbag made of raffia and silk, is equipped with a small photovoltaic charger to power your smartphone or tablet – and it helps you to reduce your carbon footprint. This is the total set of greenhouse gas emissions caused by you, leading to the greenhouse effect of global warming. A typical phone charger emits almost 9 kg of carbon dioxide per load.

The brain behind the Nomad handbag is a young Malagasy woman entrepreneur, who designed it at the tender age of 23 years. The bag has garnered many awards and created 45 jobs.

Two thousand kilometres away, in landlocked Zambia, a pioneering woman blacksmith began collecting scrap metal littering the market to make cooking pots and braziers.  Two years later, she was selected as one of the top female entrepreneurs in Zambia’s Central Province.

These are just two examples of successful, creative women entrepreneurs among the 19 countries in the COMESA region – and there are many more. You will have seen them at border crossings, markets, craft shops, food fairs, and increasingly, in boardrooms.

Nonetheless, as COMESA held its 19th Summit in Madagascar recently, we must ask, is the region doing its best to support women entrepreneurs? Or are we living in the paradox eloquently expressed by Nigerian writer and feminist icon, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie?

“The real tragedy of our postcolonial world is not that the majority of people had no say in whether or not they wanted this new world; rather, it is that the majority have not been given the tools to negotiate this new world.”

Today, we ask the defining question: what toolbox do women need to succeed as entrepreneurs in this new world?

Women’s empowerment

The COMESA Free Trade Area agreement will not deliver sustainable economic and social progress unless women are empowered and enabled to navigate the complex procedures involved. This is where the first elements in our toolbox lie for women entrepreneurs – literacy and numeracy, computer skills and legal knowledge.

The capacities of women entrepreneurs in the sub-region need to be scaled up to include understanding of the COMESA Treaty, which recognizes the role of women in business, agriculture and trade; the African Union Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa; the Maputo Protocol, or Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa; and CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. They enshrine women’s rights in general, and sexual and reproductive rights.

Equally crucial is the right for women to own assets and to inherit property, especially land and homes that they can use as collateral for credit. This will help increase access to financial capital and boost opportunities for financial inclusion for women, especially those in rural areas.

Sadly, the economies of most countries are not geared to women, as research from UN Women’s Progress of the World’s Women Report shows.  In almost all countries, large gender gaps exist in economic opportunities and outcomes. The report shows that women earn less than men – 24 per cent less, globally – and have fewer assets than men. Moreover, women are largely concentrated in vulnerable and low-paying jobs, without the necessary social protection. Furthermore, unequal sharing of domestic and care work puts a brake on women’s ambitions, while unequal representation at decision-making level on trade structures makes their concerns invisible.

These barriers need urgent attention. But still, there is more that is needed.

Boosting women’s health

Another important element of the toolbox is fulfilling the sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls. Globally, more than 300,000 women die each year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth – and more than 85,000 (28 per cent) of these deaths occur in the East and Southern Africa (ESA) region.

In addition, more than half of all AIDS-related maternal deaths occur in the ESA region. In five ESA countries – South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana, Lesotho and Mozambique – 10 per cent or more of maternal deaths are due to AIDS-related indirect causes.

Besides, young girls in the region face many challenges, including high rates of child marriage and early pregnancy. In at least 10 of the 23 ESA countries the child marriage rates are above 30 per cent – or 1 in 3. With child marriage comes early pregnancy, and with early pregnancy come numerous health risks, including complications of childbirth such as obstetric fistula (a hole in the womb due to prolonged labour, leaving the woman incontinent).

While some believe that child marriage presents a way out of poverty for the family, or protects their daughter from contracting HIV or having a child out of wedlock, for a young girl child marriage is in many ways the beginning of the end. The end of her right to define her own life, to receive a formal education, to achieve economic independence, and to choose and control her fertility, in order to achieve her full potential. 

Clearly, women in the COMESA region are at a disadvantage due to major challenges when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health and rights. These also include access to and control over resources, without which they are vulnerable to an endless cycle of poverty.  


Call to action

Producing a new ‘army’ of women entrepreneurs requires addressing the issues of women’s empowerment and women’s health. Countries in the COMESA region must urgently address these challenges and put in place measures to protect women.

Going forward, we call on all COMESA countries to:  

  • Make business simpler, cheaper and safer for women entrepreneurs;
  • Devise innovative programmes that build entrepreneurial skills among women and put in place innovative ICT programmes that empower rural women;
  • Build networks that promote mentorship among women entrepreneurs and address barriers that make it difficult for women to participate fully in free trade;
  • Expand women’s access to sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services, including family planning.

Our commitment

We at UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women, are committed to working with COMESA partners and governments to empower women with the tools they need to thrive in business. We believe this is women’s human right; we have committed to this goal at international and regional fora, and it makes plain good economic sense.

Jointly authored by:

Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, Regional Director, UNFPA East and Southern Africa

Ms. Izeduwa Derex-Briggs, Regional Director, UN Women Eastern and Southern Africa