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Invest in African women entrepreneurs to empower them: UN official

Oulimata Sarr, deputy regional director in charge of West and Central Africa at UN Women, poses for a photo during an interview with The Mainichi on Oct. 9, 2018. (The Mainichi/Hiroaki Wada)

TOKYO -- Empowering women is a mission for Oulimata Sarr, deputy regional director in charge of West and Central Africa at UN Women, and she means business by that.

Visiting Tokyo for the ministerial meeting on Oct. 6 and 7 of the Seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD7) slated for next year, Sarr said that connecting the private sectors of African countries and Japan was "an important outcome" of the meeting, in an interview with the Mainichi on Oct. 9. She is stationed at the office in Senegal in western Africa of UN Women, the United Nations organization for gender equality and the empowerment of women worldwide.

"TICAD has been very much focused on political issues, human security," she said, but this year's ministerial meeting and its side events were "an opportunity for a lot of African countries to showcase their investment opportunities for Japanese companies." Sarr said she enjoyed that shift toward business.

A 10-year veteran from International Finance Corp. of the World Bank group helping private sectors in developing countries, Sarr is eager to invite some Japanese companies to invest in African women entrepreneurs. One candidate is producers of shea butter -- the fat extracted from the nut of the African shea tree -- that is widely used in cosmetics as a moisturizer or lotion. "Shea butter is produced in Africa and 90 percent of people who are in that value chain are women. It would be nice to have women in that conversation" for future investment possibilities, she said.

Japanese companies that caught her interest during this visit included a manufacturer of fuel bricks made from rice husks. Women supported by Sarr's office don't know what to do with the husks and throw them away, but the Japanese technology can make fuel out of such waste husks and reduce the need to cut trees that are vital for soil protection.

Sarr focuses on agriculture-related initiatives, especially those resilient against climate change with the capacity to empower women. She said many farm workers in Africa are women and empowering them requires addressing four issues: access to land, skills, finance and market.

As part of its efforts in this sector, UN Women and the World Food Programme are providing a "Buy from Women" phone application that matches up rural women with buyers, according to Sarr. The project is underway in African countries such as Rwanda and Mali. In Rwanda, some 5,000 farmers including women are using the digital platform to sell products such as maize to buyers.

Those women who used to make one dollar a day "are now making five dollars a day simply because you have a buyer so you don't have issues of postharvest losses." Because of the contractual relationship they have developed with the buyers, the women "are not sitting on the side of the road trying to sell maize to somebody," and have been economically empowered, she stressed.

There are other positive changes for women in Africa in the private sector, such as the launch of women's investment clubs in Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire. In the case of the Senegalese club, the recipients of investment are women-owned companies in the sustainable sector. "We take equity, so we are really long-term partners. We are there to participate in the growth of your company," explained the UN Women official. "Maybe women in Japan can do the same," she suggested.

Despite such developments, news coverage about Africa tends to be negative, focusing on violence, poverty and political instability. The Central and West Africa that Sarr is responsible for has no shortage of such stories -- from the Boko Haram extremists to famine and armed conflicts. "But I think for the past few years, there has been a shift into that narrative where they say Africa is rising, open for business" with a growing population and rich natural resources, said Sarr. "It's almost like if a developed country wants to have a certain level of growth, it will need to engage in Africa. I think Japan has understood that very well" and that shows in the way the TICAD conferences are organized, she said.

Japan has been "a great contributor" to human security, protecting women and children in conflicts in Africa. Now is the time for Japan to take the mission to the next level, said Sarr. "We want the government of Japan to engage with us on development."

And that support, said Sarr, should go to women. "African women are the ones that hold society together. They do anything to feed the family. I think all they need is support, to go to the next level, to have sustainable development."

(By Hiroaki Wada, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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