Members urged to address needs of women entrepreneurs at MC12 event

WTO members must step up work to ensure that trade and trade rules better serve women amid disruptions posed by multiple crises, Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said at the WTO-International Trade Centre (ITC) joint event titled “Unlocking Trade for Women’s Empowerment and Sustainable Development” held on 12 June, the first day of the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12). The event spotlighted perspectives from entrepreneurs and enabling organizations to effectively increase women’s participation in international trade.

“We need to deepen and diversify supply networks and bring more countries and communities from the economic margins to the mainstream. In this process, which I think of as re-globalization, women have to be at the centre,” DG Okonjo-Iweala said in her opening remarks at the event. “Unlocking trade for women’s empowerment and sustainable development is not just the right thing to do. It’s an economic issue. It’s a social issue. It is the key issue,” she said, noting potential increases in global output, wages and employment when the gender divide is addressed.

“A strong and effective WTO is critical for these women, which is one more reason why delivering results at MC12 this week is so important,” DG Okonjo-Iweala said. “We want to make sure that people know that the WTO is about people. It’s not only about rules — it’s about rules that help people,” she said.

ITC Executive Director Pamela Coke-Hamilton likewise highlighted the plight of women entrepreneurs amid unprecedented disruptions: “We are hearing the global 3 C’s — climate, COVID, and conflict — these have disrupted all of our best laid plans. These disruptions are everywhere: supply chains, accelerated inflation, and higher risks of doing business.”

“Real change in women’s livelihoods only comes when we translate commitments into action,” she added, highlighting the need to reflect the importance of gender issues in the MC12 ministerial declaration to ensure women can access finance and markets, and to increase the number of Aid for Trade partners who support the gender and trade agenda.

Four women entrepreneurs shared their perspectives at the event, drawing attention to challenges they faced to export their products and scale up their businesses. These included access to markets and finance, certification and traceability of their products to meet buyers’ requirements, and high shipping costs particularly for ports outside the main trade arteries. The entrepreneurs reported on how they overcame hurdles to expand their businesses with support from the SheTrades Initiative established by the ITC to connect women entrepreneurs to markets.

The four entrepreneurs were Mobola Sagoe of Shea Origin (Nigeria), a firm which produces shea butter and has trained over 6,000 Nigerian women along the entire shea value chain from nut collectors to producers; Madhumita Sarkar of Luxe Living (India), a manufacturer of textiles which employs over 300 artisans in West Bengal; Yohanna Keraf of Du Anyam (Indonesia), a social enterprise that produces wicker crafts to economically empower women in rural areas; and Agnes Mukamushinja of Nova Coffee (Rwanda), which supports over 2,800 local women smallholders in northern Rwanda to grow, process and export Arabica beans.

Representatives from enabling organizations — BlackIvy Group Founder Cheryl D. Mills, Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE) Deputy CEO Abu Bakar Yusof, and Bamboo Capital Partners Managing Partner Jean-Philippe de Schrevel — spoke on new approaches to help unlock funding and support for women entrepreneurs. They cited, for example, non-traditional vetting processes for loan grants, government guarantees of funding programmes, and partnerships to equip entrepreneurs with market intelligence to further grow their businesses.