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Delegation of African women to visit NM

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

More than 20 female entrepreneurs from across Africa will visit New Mexico this week as part of a U.S. State Department educational program for “emerging leaders” in various industries.

The women will make a five-day stop in New Mexico, traveling to Santa Fe, Santa Cruz and Albuquerque, visiting operations and organizations related to the visitors’ own lines of work in apparel, accessories and agriculture.

The African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, founded in 2010 as part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, is an annual three-week trip through the U.S. in which female business-owners nominated by their countries’ U.S. embassies visit various American cities. This year, the delegation includes leaders from 13 different countries, including Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, and whose enterprises range from jewelry-making to high fashion to producing honey or shea butter.

“We’re making an attempt to cover all those areas (of business) in several days,” said Brent Soloway, a program officer for the Santa Fe Council of International Relations, who is organizing AWEP’s Northern New Mexico visits.

The delegation will end its trip in Chicago as a group, after the travelers branch off by trade area to stops in Atlanta, San Diego and Portland.

One of the main objectives for the AWP trips, according to Soloway, is to help the entrepreneurs discover ways to break into U.S. markets.

“The one thing that ties them together is each of these women work in businesses that they can expand (into) markets abroad,” said Soloway.

But the International Visitor Leadership Program goal isn’t a “trade mission,” it’s an educational one, said Kate Sanders, AWEP’s D.C.-based program manager. Her company, Meridian International Center, partners with the State Department to organize the program. She said the main goal is that the African women leave the U.S. with ideas on how to better expand their businesses and further the discussion about women’s abilities to impact their local economies.

The group is also in the U.S. at the same time as the annual forum on the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a federal trade law aiming to better U.S. market access for Sub-Saharan African countries.

For entrepreneurs, particularly women, “it’s very important we are able to share ideas, ‘What are you doing? How can I gain from it? How can you take from me?’ ” Zainab Mustapha Jaji of Nigeria told the Journal in a phone interview from Washington D.C.

Mustapha Jaji, 49, began ZMJ Integrated Services, an approximately 100-acre farm in rural northeastern Nigeria growing corn and raising cattle, in 2013. She said that, worldwide, business leaders all face similar issues, trying to navigate financial literacy, product enhancement, branding, and using technology and social media to further their enterprises.

While on the trip, she hopes to learn how to access new markets in the U.S. and collaborate with American companies, take on new practices for keeping her cattle disease-free and how to become a better “social enterprise.”

She said she already offers benefits like health care access to her 25 employees, but she wants to learn about ways to best “sustain” her business model long-term.

“I would like to see how to benefit my community better, to be able to give back,” Jaji said.

Local stops

The New Mexico portion of the group’s U.S. trip starts in Santa Fe this weekend, when the women will visit and volunteer at the International Folk Art Market, Soloway said.

They will meet with market CEO Jeff Snell and will be given an overview on how artisans among the AWEP visitors can apply to sell at the market.

The delegation will volunteer in various capacities depending on fluency in English, according to Soloway. Some who speak English will be hospitality volunteers and interact with the market crowd, and others will assist artists. Those who speak French will help and work alongside French-speaking market vendors.

“They’ll talk to and engage with artists, some of whom are coming from their same countries,” the market’s Snell told the Journal. “I think that’s going to be a very beautiful moment to have their imaginations expanded and have a figure to look toward for inspiration.”

Though AWEP delegations have visited Santa Fe and Albuquerque before, this is the first time agricultural entrepreneurs are included. Sanders said that’s because the Camino de Paz school in Española’s Santa Cruz area was added to the schedule.

The northern New Mexico school’s middle- and high-school-age kids help operate a farm as part of their curriculum. Their fruits, vegetables and dairy products are sold at the Santa Fe Farmers Market and elsewhere from Taos to Albuquerque.

The women will tour the school’s farm and learn about its education model, as well as its sustainable farming practices, said AWEP’s Sanders.

“They’re very much interested in how we train the next generation,” she said. Some of the group members also want to know how to obtain organic and fair trade certifications.

Camino de Paz’ director Patricia Pantano said the visit is a good opportunity for the students to meet people from other parts of the world and share how they take part in the farm’s day-to-day operation.

The school has previously welcomed other groups from Africa and the Middle East through the State Department and the Santa Fe Council of International Relations.

“The students explain how this particular farm works because they participate in it and because it’s small scale,” said Pantano. “Lots of these people are doing small local business and things like that, (and) they can see how that works on a certain level.”

The AWEP visitors will also participate in a panel discussion on doing business in Africa at the Hotel Santa Fe on Monday afternoon from 2:30-4 p.m.

The delegation will then travel to Albuquerque where the women will meet with local organizations, including Arca Organics farm, Kei & Molly Textiles, the Albuquerque-Bernallilo County Trade Alliance and the local chapter of the Women’s Economic Self Sufficiency Team.