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UNECA pushes for women, youth development at West Africa Business Forum

Determined to drive a transformation agenda for youth entrepreneurs, women in business and private sector organisations in the region, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), through its Sub regional Office for West Africa, held its maiden regional business forum.

The business forum, which also sought to find solutions to the bottlenecks that impede women and youths within the space of businesses, education, infrastructure and ease of doing business, attracted sector champions, business leaders and owners who have a track record of success in their areas of work.

Speaking at the 3-day hybrid Forum held at the Intercontinental Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos, Tokunbo Chiedu, CEO of Compass Global, the partner to UNECA on the regional West Africa Business Forum said the engagement is set against the backdrop of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Chiedu said the forum looked at particular issues around interventions to support the youths and women towards harnessing their potentials and to ensure that the region is able to collectively respond to the challenges within.

“The purpose of this forum is to amplify the issue of what is required to move the continent forward and in any conversation that we have on this issue. The question of the role of women and youths is undeniably pertinent.

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“Women are very key to the conversation when it comes to our contributions in commerce. About 98 percent of the informal sector is led by women. Women tend to set up businesses more than men, so we have more women active in business as business owners.

“The pandemic affected women in a very tremendous way. So, the response has to be a collective response that takes a holistic approach because the pandemic is not just a health crisis, it also spirals into an economic crisis, which we are trying to rebound from,” she explained.

Being one of the worst-hit of the pandemic while playing the roles of care takers, business owners amongst others, women need all the support and interventions, she added.

Also speaking virtually at the event, Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed, Minister of Finance said as the continent looks to leverage on AfCFTA that seeks to improve the export capacity of both formal and informal service suppliers, with particular attention on Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise, (MSME) for women and youths, the business forum is an effective avenue for empowering youths and women entrepreneurs and addressing the unemployment challenges in the region.

Shamsuna, who noted that youth unemployment in the region stands at 60 percent of the continent’s total unemployment, reiterated that Nigeria’s fast growing population is one of its greatest assets which must be exploited in shaping development on the continent.

She stressed that economic empowerment of women is critical to development across the continent, adding that AfCFTA offers youths and women great opportunities to be players in the region’s value chain development.

“In Nigeria, MSMEs represent up to 90 percent of manufacturing and 80 percent of trading. There is therefore a need for deliberate strategy to take advantage of opportunities presented by AfCFTA.

“Our national strategy includes an MSME aggregation programme to promote specialisation and increase productivity, also an MSME connection to e-commerce platforms and emerging technologies. Indeed by leveraging these digital technologies, Nigeria hopes to create a market for MSMEs within and outside Nigeria and to support production and manufacturing in agriculture and services,” the finance minister said.

Also speaking virtually, Vera Songwe, ECA executive secretary said African women are one of the most entrepreneurial and can take advantage of its economic and population dynamics.

Songwe however suggested that to harness these potentials, training and education will play a key role, adding that governments in the region must provide an enabling environment by creating the right regulatory framework for women businesses to thrive.

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