Powering Women for Business – Remarks by U.S. Ambassador Natalie E. Brown at American Chamber Annual Women’s Day Forum

Powering Women for Business – Remarks by U.S. Ambassador Natalie E. Brown at American Chamber Annual Women’s Day Forum

U.S. Embassy Kampala | March 23, 2023 | (As prepared for delivery at Sheraton Hotel Kampala)

AmCham event 03.23.2023Good morning, friends.  Good morning, businesswomen.  I’m thrilled to be here with you during Women’s Month to honor you and the important role you play in Uganda.  At the risk of stating the obvious, this is an intense week in Uganda and recent developments have the potential to affect us all, especially as women.  Study after study from around the world, from UN bodies, from universities, and from research institutions show that discriminatory measures, regardless of the target, disproportionately affect women.

Therefore, to see all of you here to celebrate women, to support women is so very reassuring.  And in the two+ years that I’ve been in Uganda, I have had the opportunity to meet and also support many inspiring women.  That support manifests in so many ways.  This time last year, the U.S. Mission organized its own Women of Courage event, replicating an annual ceremony hosted by the Secretary of State.  We celebrated women from every sector of society – politics, the arts, health, and civil society, for example – including Eve Zalwango, AmCham’s General Manager.

On a more personal level, that support is evident the moment you walk into my home.  My closet, the decor, and many kitchen items are all testimony to the wonderful things that the Ugandan businesswomen I’ve been privileged to meet are selling.  Uganda has an impressive number of female leaders in the business sector, and to recover from the effects of COVID and the lockdowns, and more recently Ebola, Uganda must harness the expertise and contributions of women.  I understand that at least 30% of AmCham’s member companies are led by women.  And 60% of member companies employ mid-level managers who are women.  Uganda needs you.  The East Africa region needs you.  The world needs you.

We need your creativity.  We need your commitment.  And we need your investments in the community and next generation.  For example, let’s take a moment to talk about Eve – businesswoman, carpenter, and mentor extraordinaire.  Not only does her business make high-end furniture for offices, homes, hotels, and restaurants, but she also exports wood products to the United States.  Moreover, Eve, an overachiever, is an alumna of the U.S. government’s prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship and the YALI [Young African Leaders Initiative] Regional Leadership Center.  And if that’s not enough, she’s the founder of a charity initiative that supports land mine victims in western Uganda.  And she does this all while looking impeccably smart and taking on trolls on social media.

Meg Jaquay is another successful female business owner.  She is the founder of Jakana Foods, which processes dry fruit in Uganda and exports to the U.S. market.  Jakana Foods supports local farmers by purchasing the dried fruit and Meg further launched an initiative to provide women with income by teaching them to make jewelry and craft items.

And within the AmCham community there are titans like Sarah Arapta, CEO of Citibank, Uganda’s 10th largest bank, and Dorothy Semanda, who last year became CEO of American Tower Company after previously serving as the Chief Financial Officer of the company.

There are so many impressive Ugandan businesswomen, we could be here for days highlighting all of them.  But what makes these women so impressive is not only their leadership, tenacity, intelligence, and drive, but also the fact that they have been so successful even in the face of significant obstacles.

According to the World Bank, women entrepreneurs earn 30% lower profits than men, and women business owners in Uganda face gender specific barriers, including lower access to capital, and segregation into lower-value sectors.  And I know there are places that seek to regulate how women dress, as if that has an impact on the bottom line!

The World Bank report “Putting Women at the Center of Uganda’s Economic Revival” found that Uganda continues to face gender inequality in economic empowerment and economic outcomes, despite closing gender gaps in rates of labor force participation and entrepreneurial activity.  It stressed that Uganda’s policy and legal framework must better support women in their employment, and entrepreneurial aspirations.  Above all, enforcement is absolutely essential if policies and related programs are to have a real impact on the ground.

The U.S. government has been actively engaged with the Ugandan government and the Ugandan people to address these challenges.  On the policy side, USAID commissioned an assessment that concluded that limited access to capital, poor transportation, regressive social norms, and Gender Based Violence affected women’s participation in cross-border trade.  In response, USAID worked with traders and suppliers, empowering women to sell inputs like seeds and fertilizer, and buy commodities such as maize and beans, which dominate inter- and intra-regional trade.  Another USAID activity supported Uganda’s Equal Opportunities Commission to develop gender strategies that aim to ensure inclusive development for women, especially in the trade sector.

Other U.S. government agencies, such as the Development Finance Corporation, or DFC, whose Chief Development Officer visited Uganda last month, have shown an increased appetite to invest in Ugandan businesses.  DFC’s 2X Women’s Initiative is committed to addressing the unique challenges women face globally and unlocking the multi-trillion-dollar opportunity they represent.  Through the 2X initiative, DFC has catalyzed billions of dollars of investments in projects globally that are owned by women, led by women, or provide a product or service that empowers women.  DFC applies a gender lens to every project it considers, helping ensure that women will benefit.

Akola is a good example of this.  They received a DFC loan in September 2020 that they used to help them weather the effects of the pandemic.  Akola employs 170 women to make craft jewelry sold on the luxury market in the U.S.  And they enroll their staff in programs to increase their financial literacy and business skills.  Shortly after I arrived in Uganda, I visited Akola and met some of the employees, including a woman whose family of 7 went from sharing a one-room house to building a three-bedroom home, all from her job and the literacy skills she learned.  She was coaching her colleagues, neighbors, and even her husband on budgeting, and all of her children were in school.

But we’re not only working with large businesses.  Our Academy for Women Entrepreneurs, or AWE program, brings together women owners of small and medium size businesses across the country to learn and share business acumen as they build a network for continued professional growth.  For example, AWE offered an on-line DreamBuilder course designed by the renowned Thunderbird School of Global Management at the University of Arizona.  350 AWE participants have since graduated from the program and took advantage of the localized AWE curriculum to build networks and tap into resources within and outside Uganda.  AWE graduates in Kampala, Lira, Gulu, Mbale, Mbarara, Fort Portal, and Jinja are formalizing their businesses by registering, creating business plans, and collaborating with peers.  A number of women have benefited from opportunities for seed funding from the U.S. government’s U.S. African Development Foundation, private donors, and the AWE program itself.  But one thing the graduates repeatedly tell me they need is mentors.  Women mentors.  Ugandan woman mentors whose experiences can guide them.  Hint.  Hint.

AmCham event 03.23.2023-1And as I speak, one of our AWE alumnae is in the United States on a professional development program entitled “African Descendants Social Entrepreneurship.”  Cerinah Kasiyre, of Trillion Looks Fashion, is building her brand with connections to African American businesses and expanding her network of business owners across the continent.  These connections are essential for women to broaden their networks and ready their companies for foreign investment.

All Ugandan businesses and the economy writ large benefit when the business sector is strengthened to be more inviting to foreign investment.  U.S. companies are interested in operating in a transparent and efficient business environment where they can easily set up a business, build partnerships, and have the ability to repatriate profit.

They also seek a fair and inclusive economic environment with robust, transparent, and predictable tax requirements and regulations prior to starting their businesses, along with an open, competitive, and transparent bidding process on public and private tender projects.

As successful businesswomen, we look to you – your communities look to you – to advocate for stronger regulation and democratic principles that will serve to protect your businesses and attract foreign investment.  I know firsthand the incredible products and services Uganda has to offer the world, and the equally incredible women business leaders behind many of them.  It is your turn to shine, not just in the month of March, but all year round.

Thank you for inviting me to be with you today.  I wish you continued success in your businesses and meaningful recognition for the role you play in bolstering Uganda’s economy.  I am proud to be among you, and I am proud that the U.S. government has for the past 60 years worked in partnership with Uganda towards a brighter future, together.