MEDays Forum panel looks to spur economic growth by empowering women
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The MEDays Forum – held annually in Tangier – is a meeting of political, economic and social leaders from mainly Mediterranean, African and Arab regions that bills itself as the "Davos of Africa".
But MEDays was notably different from Davos in one key aspect on Thursday, the first full day of events: Its panel on female entrepreneurship was populated entirely by women.
Women may be the best equipped to talk about the challenges they face, but at the 2016 Davos panel on empowering women the panelists were all men – although the moderator was a woman and there was at least one woman present in the overwhelmingly male audience.
Not so at MEDays. The “Bolstering Growth Through Gender Equality” panel featured nine women from different parts of the world and from different industrial sectors. The session was moderated by Aghadeer Jweihan, the director of the office of Jordan’s Princess Taghrid Mohammad and an entrepreneur in her own right.
Jweihan talked about the need to make the initiatives that are available to urban women in the developing world also accessible to women in rural areas – a concern echoed by several other panelists.
Ingrid Bouterse-Waldring, the first lady of Suriname and the panel’s chair, stressed that encouraging female entrepreneurs has benefits that are not merely financial: Empowered women change the outcomes for future generations. For single mothers, self-employment allows them the greater flexibility needed in their schedules to care for children.
Several of the panelists shared concerns over girls being either steered toward or away from certain professions. “We need to not ignore the role of gender socialisation,” said panelist Motswana Molotlegi, princess of the Royal Bafokeng Nation in South Africa.
Amany Asfour, world president of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, stressed the need for governments to adopt policies that support small and medium-sized businesses. For example, she said, such companies should be included as candidates in any government tender so that large enterprises don’t dominate the marketplace. And established companies should be encouraged to purchase from smaller enterprises. “Business leadership is an ecosystem,” she said.
Asfour stressed the need for the developing countries of the Global South not to rely on exporting resources but instead to move toward value-added commodities.
“This is about South-South partnerships,” she said. “We need to make our own technology.”
That is exactly what Ethel Delali Cofie is doing in her native Ghana and further afield. Cofie, who began writing software at the age of 17, is the founder and CEO of EDEL Technology Consulting as well as the founder of Women in Tech Africa, which has members from more than 30 African countries and is expanding to Europe – including to France at the end of 2017.
Cofie noted that there is no dearth of female entrepreneurs in Africa, but what they lack is the know-how required to grow and scale their businesses. Like other panelists, she stressed that women should not only focus on areas that are traditionally female but should also be encouraged to enter male-dominated fields such as technology and engineering.
Cofie said that she is often the sole woman – or one of only a few – in the room at technology events. She highlighted the need to mentor and support young women entering diverse fields, noting that the few women who pursue careers in male-dominated industries often leave after just a few years.
Women need to be bolder, she said – not only in their choice of careers but in the opportunities they can envision for themselves.
“I resent the fact that the conversation around women and women entrepreneurship is around small business,” Cofie said.
“Women should be running big companies. We need to think bigger. We need to support our women to do more.”