Reflections on the 2022 Africa-America Women’s Economic Forum & Trade Expo

The Forum, a partnership of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Crummer, Access Bank, and the Wilson College of Textiles, was part of the annual ZORA! Festival.

By Laura J. Cole ’04 ’08MLS

As part of the ZORA! Festival held in Eatonville, Florida, the third annual Africa-America Women’s Economic Forum & Trade Expo continued its focus on nurturing international commerce through education and culture.

“This year’s AAWEF was a two-day ‘virtual’ journey, in which women entrepreneurs from Africa and America came together to discuss issues and barriers we experience as women in business, as well as solutions we can implement to overcome them,” said Crummer student Karlye B. Martorelli. “Topics included international trade, innovation in textiles, environmental issues, funding access, overcoming gender bias, branding, marketing, leadership, and legal and regulatory considerations.”

A collaboration between the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, the Crummer Graduate School of Business, Access Bank, and the Wilson College of Textiles at North Carolina State University, AAWEF began as an effort for institutions of higher education in the United States to support Agenda 2063, Africa’s master plan for “transforming the continent into the global powerhouse of the future.”

With global business, entrepreneurship, and diversity and inclusion core elements of the Crummer experience, the School has long been at the forefront of this type of transformation. Crummer is a founding partner of the Global Links Initiative, a program celebrating ten years of actively supporting women’s empowerment through education and entrepreneurship. As part of Global Links, respected female leaders from around the world come to Crummer to learn how to help women in their countries develop businesses.

We asked forum participants—ranging from Crummer students and faculty to organizers and elected officials—to share their experiences from this year’s event. Here’s what they had to say.

What is your biggest take-away from the forum?

Dr. Mary Conway Dato-on, George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Professor of International Business and Social Entrepreneurship at the Crummer Graduate School of Business:

“I have two interesting take-away points: 1. The importance of knowing one’s purpose from which to frame one’s business, the marketing of said business, and the key to leading self and others. 2. That we have much to learn from others about how to support women’s entrepreneurship—including access to funding.”

Karlye B. Martorelli, Crummer EMBA41 Candidate:
“My biggest take-away from this 2-day journey is that women are more resilient than ever. Women are bold and strong, and we adapt. We lean on each other when necessary and use that support to propel ourselves forward. We learn and grow, even in uncertainty, and we are not afraid of the struggle. Women are creative, capable, and full of promise waiting to be realized—and when empowered with better access partners creating opportunities with women, our potential is limitless.

An inclusive economic environment is what pushes an economy to reach its full potential. In providing equal access to quality education, clean cities, clean water, innovation, and business and financial support, we can create a global inclusive economic environment in which the entire global community benefits and is elevated.

Crummer’s mission is ‘to develop responsible, innovative, and global leaders who positively impact their organizations and community.’ During these two days, I became a more informed leader and connected with resources around the globe. And in the days to come I intend to use this information, along with the skills I am learning in the EMBA program at Crummer, to positively impact not only my local community, but the world community as well.”

N.Y. Nathiri, Executive Director, The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community:

“My biggest take-away is the power of collaboration, and how our organization has been able to build a structure which has transformational potential by working with a range of—specifically institutions of higher education, an international representative of the financial sector, and the federal government via our Congresswoman, the Honorable Val Demings.”

Kenneth Mouradian, Director of the Orlando U.S. Export Assistance Center and Executive Secretary of the Central – North Florida District Export Council:

“Export isn’t businesses. It’s a segment of the company’s overall sales. Export isn’t complicated, but it does require a certain amount of know-how that is absolutely attainable. The difference between export and import is one of perspective, certainly. One person’s export is another’s import. However, export and import differ in intent, as well. An exporter is unequivocally a seller, where an importer could be an end user or a manufacturer procuring inputs into a product or process. Yet the underlying observation about export also applies to imports. Import isn’t a business. It’s a business activity that requires a certain amount of attainable knowledge. There are resource available in the community to help all businesses engage in international trade.”

Chris Leggett, Program Manager, Central Florida International Trade Office:

“My biggest take-away from the AAWEF is that there are a lot of amazing women businesses owners in Africa who understand that exporting is a key tool to growing their businesses—and by extension, their communities at home—and who are excited about learning how they can access those opportunities.”

What has being part of the AAWEF meant to you and your work?

Dr. Mary Conway Dato-on:
“I’m (re)motivated to continue the work of Crummer and The Global Links Initiative to empower female entrepreneurs at home and abroad. It’s always wonderful to connect with people who share your passion—those within Crummer, the local community, our government, and across the globe.”

N.Y. Nathiri:

“Of significance to me are the working relationships which continue to be formed as my collaborative partners and I advance the agenda of the AAWEF. I am broadened as I continue a life-long journey toward being an individual who is able to make a positive impact on the space I inhabit. This is particularly important because I am the senior staff member of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, whose focus is multidisciplinary with a priority on community revitalization.”

Kenneth Mouradian:

“Participation in the Africa-America Women’s Economic Forum represents valuable outreach to two underserved communities, women and the African diaspora, and strengthened partnerships.”

Chris Leggett:

“Being part of the AAWEF has opened my eyes to the broad spectrum of products and services that are available from women-owned small businesses in Africa. It was truly inspiring to feel the excitement of these women entrepreneurs and their enthusiasm for helping their local communities by creating jobs and economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable businesses. I was honored to be able to help them to understand what is involved in getting started in international trade and to help them learn about the resources available to help them as they begin their exporting journey. I am looking forward to continuing to be a resource for them and to hear some of the success stories next year.”

Why do you think establishing a network between African and American entrepreneurs and elected officials is imperative in 2022 and beyond?

N.Y. Nathiri:

“Because ‘it’s a small world after-all,’ which makes it important to ‘think globally and act locally.’ The collaborative work and the building of networks which embrace local and international boundaries engage entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic. The inclusion a range of sectors augurs well for the likelihood of establishing mutually beneficial economic, educational, and cultural ties, which will be sustainable for decades to come.”

Kenneth Mouradian:
“Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, playing an increasingly significant role on the global stage. The continent’s rapidly growing middle class—forecast to triple by 2030—represents a stronger labor pool and more purchasing power than ever before. The populations within African countries are young, growing, and increasingly urbanizing—and household incomes across the continent are on the rise. By 2030, Africa’s population will grow to roughly 1.7 billion, and the continent will be home to one-fifth of the world’s population. Given that Africa’s infrastructure gap is narrowing and the continent is primed for mass industrialization, U.S. businesses are well positioned to meet the increasing demand for goods and services.

Despite the economic opportunity, companies also face challenges to doing business in African markets. A lack of infrastructure can present barriers to trade, and companies may need to vertically integrate to fill gaps in the value chain. There can also be high levels of competition from established firms or entrants with institutional support from their home governments. Businesses can also face information gaps about African markets.

To help mitigate these challenges, the Prosper Africa initiative empowers U.S. businesses to export to African markets by offering financing, loan guarantees, market intelligence, and more. The initiative brings together the full suite of U.S. Government services to guide businesses as they identify partners, advance opportunities, and close deals.

The United States has the largest consumer market in the world, with more than 330 million people and a gross domestic product of over $20 trillion. African businesses across many sectors have opportunities to export to the United States, including those in sectors such as food and beverage, textiles and apparel, equipment and machinery, and more.

Although U.S. markets present massive economic opportunities, these markets can also be challenging to enter and navigate. For example, businesses seeking to export to the United States must meet high standards for product quality, comply with regulatory requirements, supply U.S. buyers with commercial volumes on reliable timelines, and meet consumer expectations.

The U.S. Government has taken unprecedented steps to strengthen trade through the African Growth and Opportunity Act, known as AGOA. Many African countries have beneficiary status under AGOA, which significantly reduces barriers for companies by providing duty-free entry into the United States for many products. Through the Prosper Africa initiative, the U.S. Government offers direct support and tools for African businesses seeking to enter or expand in U.S. markets.”

Chris Leggett:

“Establishing strong linkages between African and American business and government leaders is key to achieving a better understanding of Africa in the United States—and of the U.S. in Africa. As COVID has shown us so dramatically, what happens in one part of the world can affect the rest, and we cannot truly thrive in America if other parts of the world are left behind. Connecting with entrepreneurs and small-business owners in Africa will provide our leaders here in the U.S. with an opportunity to understand the dreams and needs of “average” Africans—not just economic and political elites—and to develop policies that better respond to their priorities and concerns. In addition, American business leaders can learn a lot from African entrepreneurs, and together they can pursue opportunities that benefit them both, as well as the American consumer.”