The Road to an Inclusive Economic Recovery: UN Women Rwanda facilitates a stakeholders’ dialogue on leveraging AfCFTA opportunities for women entrepreneurs


Panelists of the Gender Café on AfCFTA opportunities. Photo- UN Women
Panelists of the Gender Café on AfCFTA opportunities. Photo: UN Women Rwanda

The establishment of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a tremendous milestone in the pursuit of integrated and inclusive economic growth in Africa. It holds a promise to enlarge the playing field for Small and Medium Enterprises especially those that are led by women. In the efforts to build back better the economic environment shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is paramount that inclusion of women is prioritized.

There is no question the 6th UN Women Gender Cafe was as timely as it was needed. From examining how to harness untapped existing opportunities in the AfCFTA, to naming challenges and tabling the best way forward.

The UN Women Gender Café is a quarterly platform organized to provide space for dialogue on conversations of relevance to women’s empowerment, self-reflection and advancing gender equality.

Under the theme of "The Road to an Inclusive Economic Recovery: Leveraging AfCFTA Opportunities”, the 6th edition brought together representatives of the government, diplomatic community, UN agencies, the private sector, experts in the finance sector, and key players in business and the entrepreneurship industry and women business-led organizations for a vibrant and engaging afternoon at the Kigali Marriott Hotel on 9  December  2021 to exchange views and find a way to bridge the gaps they have identified, together.

For the first time in Gender Café series, the 6th edition discussed issues around trade and access to affordable financing.

“Where is the money for women’s rights?”, the UN Women Representative in Rwanda, Ms. Fatou Lo opened the session with a strong question that was core to the debate on gender equality, right next to the issue of mindsets, stereotypes and negative social norms and calling on participants to nurture impactful collaboration.

Ms. Fatou Lo, UN Women Representative in Rwanda Photo- UN Women Rwanda
Ms. Fatou Lo, UN Women Representative in Rwanda. Photo: UN Women Rwanda


“Our ability to achieve gender equality essentially rests on our ability to change mindsets, to shift social norms and to avail resources for women, for women’s organizations and more broadly for the cause of gender equality and women’s empowerment, which remains to this day one of the least funded issues of all,” said Ms. Fatou Lo, UN Women Representative in Rwanda, adding that “when the pandemic hit, we put in place different alternatives to help women in businesses, and as it turned out, many of them were struggling financially and legally and needed support, and we started business clinics, to support them.”

Ms. Lo commended the efforts of Rwanda’s leadership in fostering women empowerment and encouraged stakeholders to prioritize women’s financial inclusion, capacity building and challenged financial institutions to be more intentional in uplifting women entrepreneurs by providing the support necessary to ensure that they have access to finance and can be better integrated into the value chains, jobs, and opportunities linked to the AfCFTA, as well as highlighted the paramount role of the private sector in this endeavor.

Acknowledging the complexity of the issues at hand, the Gender Cafe brought together the right people in the room to help unpack some of the crucial questions on the progress made to create a conducive atmosphere for financial inclusion and to reflect on policies and infrastructures in place and urgently accelerate efforts to support women in businesses in Rwanda.

The panel comprised of experienced and celebrated financial experts including Dr. Diane Karusisi, CEO Bank of Kigali, Mama Keita, Director of UNECA SRO, Nick Barigye, CEO Kigali International Financial Center (KIFC) and Vincent Munyeshyaka, CEO Business Development Fund (BDF).

The panel session was followed by an engaging Q&A session with questions ranging from how medium sized businesses can be helped by financial institutions, to how to holistically empower women-led businesses and much more.

Mama Keita, Director of UNECA SRO weighed in on the AfCFTA opportunities saying, that “80 per cent of Africa’s need in terms of food come from abroad, including 94% of Africa’s pharmaceutical.” She emphasized the need to strengthen regional value chains to be able to leverage each other’s strengths in increasing the productivity base. Mama highlighted the growth of the manufacturing sector as key to Africa’s economic transformation because of the continent’s current model of exporting primary commodities which do not contribute to job creation.

“It is not just about capital, AfCFTA calls for us to create a conducive environment for countries to trade. However, we need to ask ourselves whether we have the expertise and the conducive environment. This is the missing link!” Mr Barigye highlighted the role of the Kigali International Financial Center (KIFC) in creating an environment that facilitates trade and investments in Rwanda and across the region, mentioning the funds that are domiciled in the KIFC that entrepreneurs will have as an alternative source of funding specifically the Virunga Fund worth 250 million USD by Rwanda Social Security Board and the Qatar Investment Authority in the form of patient capital but will also benefit from the expertise that investors bring to the table.

The dialogue also touched upon the need to streamline access to finance processes and make the experience easier for women.

Tweets Rwanda Gender cafe

Diane Karusisi, CEO of Bank of Kigali said that through the financial support of the European Investment Bank (EIB), 30 per cent of the €40 million funds they received would go to women whose businesses were hit by the COVID19 pandemic.

In addition, a very insightful contribution came from Vincent Munyeshyaka, CEO of BDF who said that “we are trying to build partnerships with different financial institutions so that SMEs hit by the COVID19 pandemic are supported. He added that there is a big component of the economic recovery fund meant for them, where we are injecting Rwf30 billion so we can continue to support their businesses.”

At the end of the discussion, some panelists got the chance to shine a light on the projects their institutions have in place that women can benefit from, while others called for more ambition and urged women entrepreneurs to become more open to risk.

To wrap up the Gender Café, the UN Resident Coordinator, Mr Fodé Ndiaye pointed out the need for financial institutions to invest in capacity building for themselves to be able to adapt and to support clients’ needs, but also enhance skills and capacity for women entrepreneurs to fully get integrated into the business ecosystem to recover effectively. He commended UN Women for a very effective platform to table different critical issues with key partners and relevant institutions and called for more advocacy and access to information on funding opportunities available to women entrepreneurs. 

Group photo of some of the Gender Café participants. Photo- UN Women Rwanda
Group photo of some of the Gender Café participants. Photo: UN Women Rwanda