Demo Days connect West African women entrepreneurs with potential backers 

By Daniel Lynx Bernard 

Women entrepreneurs from across West Africa made their pitches to potential investors during a series of online events that demonstrated the value of public-private partnerships in overcoming barriers to economic development.

Akouvi Agbon, right, joins her staff in celebrating the growth of her company, Akouvi’s White Eagle (AWA), which processes palm kernel from 150 women growers in Togo. Agbon was introduced to private-sector investors through the USAID-funded West Africa Trade & Investment Hub. (Photo courtesy AWA)

Business owners from Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo met private-sector investors during “Demo Day” events on March 22 and 28, 2024, supported by USAID’s West Africa Trade & Investment Hub. The 21 presenting companies had been selected as the most promising graduates of a business accelerator program run by the investment firm ShEquity and the nonprofit MBC Africa under a grant from the Trade Hub. 

“Many investors say that they want to invest in women-led and owned businesses but that they can’t find a good pipeline,” said Pauline Koelbl, Managing Director of ShEquity. “So, we are here to address that—we provide that desired pipeline.” 

While describing their progress to date and how much funding they need to get to the next level, the entrepreneurs described how they had integrated social and environmental concerns into their business models.  

Awa Dembele returned to Mali after earning a master’s degree in environmental science in France. She wanted to see if she could help provide a solution to several problems in agriculture—an overreliance on chemical fertilizer and an abundance of organic waste—all while creating jobs. Her company, Damegreen, does just this by composting organic waste into organic fertilizer.  

Dembele told investors she has found an eager market of customers but needs new capital to expand. For example, she is ready to sell in Senegal but first must pay for certifications. “We can go there if we have the necessary investments,” Dembele said. 

Dembele sees her product as part of the concept of the circular economy, reusing instead of discarding.  

Damegreen-graphic-1024x410 Awa Dembele, right, presents the accomplishments of her organic fertilizer company Damegreen—sustainable and clean agriculture, a circular economy, hot composting and 1,500 tons of recycled waste in 2023—while vying for private-sector investment during a Demo Day organized with USAID’s West Africa Trade & Investment Hub.  

In Cote d’Ivoire, Padianhoua Salimata learned at a young age the trade of growing pineapples and mangos from her father. Seeing how potential income was lost to spoilage and short seasons, she founded Layaki, which processes the produce into dried fruit and mango butter, thus increasing growers’ income.  

Salimata has found strong demand in the UK. To sell in other countries, she told investors she needs support to expand her factory and obtain certifications.  

“The development of this project will allow me to achieve one of the dearest goals of my life—namely, to create a foundation for the prevention of sickle cell disease so that no more women are forced to resign to take care of their children living with this disease,” Salimata added. 

In Togo, Akouvi Agbon helped organize a cooperative of women growers to meet her company AWA’s demand for palm kernel oil.  

“This also creates jobs for these women who live in rural areas and do not have a sustainable income,” Agbon said. “To date, AWA has enabled more than 150 women to have an income-generating activity at regular intervals.” 

Noticing how much plastic packaging was discarded, Agbon added a new business activity—recycling. “The recycled plastic is then used in packaging for the production of palm kernel oil,” Agbon said. 

Each of the entrepreneurs shared financial challenges—which they said are compounded by narrow perceptions of their role as women in business. 

Fatoumata Traore’s Africa Mining Agency provides training and management services to Mali’s growing mining sector. But some clients are surprised to discover the company is led by women. “Women are really marginalized in these sectors,” Traore said. “Men say it’s not a job for women, that they belong in the home.” 

Business owners noted that supporting African-owned processing companies keeps more jobs and income in Africa than the old model of exporting raw materials and importing finished products.  

Sylvie Sagbo-Gommard of Lysa & Co. notes that the Senegalese company’s nut products are a healthy, locally made alternative to sugary imported treats. Aramatou Coulibaly made a similar case for the Ivorian grain processor Rama Cereal and noted that 80 percent of the company’s employees are women. 

Other enterprises showcased were processors of foods and cosmetics African Foods Nutrition from Burkina Faso, Pneuma Food Scientifics and Savana Essence of Ghana, and BeautyList, Melting Moments, The Nut Place, Pleroma Foods, and Roki Foods of Nigeria; digital financial companies Amira Global Technologies of Cote d’Ivoire and Alajo and Rouza of Nigeria; logistics provider VDL Fulfilment of Ghana; recycling company Chanja Datti of Nigeria; educational content provider Ker Imagination Education Services of Senegal; and AskCare of Senegal, which sells medical equipment and supplies to rural clinics.

Amira-photo-1024x489 Rukayatou Saka presents a photo of her team at the online payment platform Amira Global Technologies during a Demo Day through USAID’s West Africa Trade & Investment Hub. The regional company hopes to expand throughout Africa. 

Through its co-investment grant from the Trade Hub, ShEquity has provided technical support, mentoring and skill-building to 120 companies through its SHEBA business accelerator, readying them for investment. While the Demo Day events raise the companies’ visibility and chances of receiving new investments, they also strengthen the entrepreneurs’ skills in seeking support in the future.  

The USAID West Africa Trade & Investment Hub, implemented by Creative Associates International, provides co-investment grants to help promising companies leverage additional funding from the private sector. Since its launch in 2019, the Trade Hub has awarded $83 million in co-investment grants to 92 private-sector companies in West Africa, enabling $408 million in private-sector spending which drove new revenue and job creation. For more Trade Hub success stories, click here. 

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