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    Women's Business Association Encourages Exporters in Cameroon(3)


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 4/2003

    Interview with Gisèle Yitamben, ASAFE

    In Cameroon, ASAFE, a national organization of women entrepreneurs, is helping businesswomen to overcome economic and social vulnerability by providing business training, establishing contacts with other networks and designing export strategies for its members.

    Gisèle Yitamben, ASAFE's founder, became aware that businesswomen faced specific problems when she was working as a trainer for the Pan African Institute for Development in the 1980s.

    Hurdles for women

    Despite working extremely hard, women were not rising above a subsistence-level existence. There were no institutes to help women entrepreneurs. Trade support institutions benefited larger, male-owned businesses producing the cash crops traditionally grown by men. Furthermore, the law allowed men to stop women's activities if they considered that these were disturbing family life.

    "Even today, women own or manage very few of the country's export businesses," states Ms Yitamben. "Out of 5,000 members, 120 are business owners; only 20 are currently exporting, and just half export outside Africa." The main obstacles that businesswomen face are: "too little emphasis on female enterprise; too few qualified human resources; trade programmes that are not adapted to the needs of women entrepreneurs; not enough North-South and South-South exchanges; and unequal access to markets."

    Meeting business challenges

    "Associations such as ASAFE can help women meet the challenges in expanding their business and reaching export markets," says Ms Yitamben. They can:

    • share resources to access technology - pooling resources through associations is a way to improve connectivity and overcome the lack of individual computers;
    • provide education and training to help women get into new professions and to improve existing business practices;
    • conduct market research and provide information to facilitate exports; and
    • act as catalysts for development by putting their members in touch with other women's associations and mainstream business networks, and representing them at local, national, regional and international levels.

    Break into exports

    "What women exporters need to concentrate on," explains Ms Yitamben, "is developing new products, exporting more of their existing products and seeking opportunities to create new enterprises within the country." She suggests the following measures to support women exporters: "reinforced training programmes, the creation of networks of female exporters at the continental level, initiatives to reach women in remote rural areas, and the development of centres where resources can be pooled and shared."

    ASAFE provides its member organizations with information about markets, which it gathers from the Internet and chambers of commerce. It is currently developing a web portal to showcase its members' products.

    Use technology to open opportunities

    Information and communications technologies can help in other ways, too. They provide contacts with other business networks, access to better information and a window on the world. Using the Internet can also facilitate time management flexibility for women who are otherwise hampered by their multiple social responsibilities and resulting time constraints. For members who cannot afford their own equipment, ASAFE has an Internet access centre where they pool resources.

    Build business skills

    Besides offering access to computers and the Internet, ASAFE teaches its members to use them. It also arranges for ASAFE advisers and government specialists to offer training and advice to its members, and to give talks about key trade competitiveness issues such as quality control.

    Additionally, the association runs a training centre for young people, of whom 45% are male and 55% female. The centre offers a variety of skill-building possibilities, including web-based courses. It controls the intake of students to ensure that women are in the majority, and female students pay only 50% of the fee. "Without these measures," Ms Yitamben says, "the vast majority of those joining the programme would be male."

    Network for success

    Ms Yitamben also stresses that women's support organizations need to link with other mainstream and women's business networks. Networking is important as it may lead to export opportunities, by developing contacts for mutually beneficial partnerships. In 1992 she led a South-South trade mission to India, financed by the World Bank. "We studied parallel organizations and alternative solutions, including the SEWA experience [see pages 6-7] which we considered as a development model to reproduce in Cameroon."

    Associations - catalysts for success

    Working with partners

    ASAFE works with other women's support organizations in Benin and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and with the African Federation of Women Entrepreneurs. It also works with ITC, mainly for training and to build information networks. It is adapting ITC training modules for enterprise management and services exporting (see pages 18-19) in English and French to reflect conditions in Cameroon.

    Seeking international support

    Ms Yitamben believes that the international community could speed up development in Africa by working with women's business associations. So far, it has supported small projects for self-employed women and micro-finance for poor women, she explains. "But for the women who are not in the very poorest sectors, there is little help. I would like to see many international organizations come out to help the women'ssupport associations. They can help alleviate poverty and support development much more efficiently by working with women," she emphasizes, "as women are serious: they repay their loans."

    "I would like to see a fully-fledged programme for women entrepreneurs at ITC, and larger amounts set aside by the World Bank to support women's programmes. At present, the United Nations and its agencies are only investing in micro-projects," says Ms Yitamben, "when what is needed from the international community is more investment and more structured support services."

    Organization:Association pour le Soutien et l'Appui à la Femme Entrepreneur (ASAFE - Support association for women entrepreneurs)

    Location: Douala, Cameroon

    Members: 5,000 self-employed women, of whom 120 are business owners

    Employees: 15 paid staff, consisting of the founder, two coordinators, four trainers and eight outreach workers

    Web site:http://www.asafe.org

    Advice to other women entrepreneurs: "Try to work together. This is not happening as much as it should. People have gained a lot by having a counterpart in a country to which they wish to export, for example, women from the Democratic Republic of the Congo having a contact or partner in Cameroon and vice versa. Inter-business networking is very important. Building a network linking small exporters throughout Africa should be a priority for businesswomen's associations in the region."

    Who are the women in ASAFE?

    Ms Yitamben established ASAFE in 1987. Currently, 90% of its membership is small businesses run by businesswomen, who are involved in a variety of activities, including textiles, food processing (e.g., fish smokers), retailers and the service industry (hairdressing, tailoring, etc). Most members are self-employed or own small businesses employing five to ten people. A large majority of members (70%) come from urban areas and the remaining 30% from rural districts throughout the country.

    Most ASAFE members, particularly those aged between 20 and 40, have finished primary school. Many have completed at least part of their secondary schooling, and some have a university education.

    Sources of finance

    ASAFE members pay an annual subscription fee according to the size of their business. However, the association is not completely self-financed, as its members cannot afford to pay much for services. It finds some funding from outside sources, such as the Japanese Government and the Swiss non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Action de Carême (Lenten action) and Pain pour le Prochain (Bread for neighbours). Several foundations and churches in the United States of America also contribute to ASAFE funding, and they have received help from the Canadian International Development Agency and international NGOs.

    Mary Treacy, Trade Forum contributing editor, conducted this interview. For more information about ASAFE, contact Gisèle Yitamben at gisele.yitamben@asafe.org