LOS ANGELES (MCT) — Fashion designer Tanya Aab says she feels lucky: Few businesswomen from Swaziland can travel to the United States to learn how to build their companies and sell their brands overseas.
For several days this week, Aab was walking through the Los Angeles garment district as part of a State Department program aimed at helping African countries build their economies and rely less on U.S. foreign aid.
"You can really expose your brand," said Aab, 32, who runs a company called Arrum Lilly in her hometown of Mbabane. "It is absolutely fantastic," she said, to be learning and traveling with women from other African countries.
She is one of 47 women from 37 African nations sponsored by the State Department under its program for female African entrepreneurs. The annual event began three years ago after the agency found that a 2000 law to help build the economies of African countries had been tapped mostly by men.
The African Growth and Opportunity Act gives duty-free status to specific African exports, especially textile and garment products, and increased access to U.S. credit.
African businesswomen could be a key economic force in their countries, especially since females make up 85 percent of the household consumers in African nations, according to the State Department.
"Women who run small and medium businesses are accelerators for economic growth and jobs creation," said Melanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador at large for global women's issues.
So why aren't they taking advantage of the 2000 law? "Their businesses aren't export-ready," Verveer said.
African businesswomen face a number of barriers in expanding internationally, she said, including access to credit and financing. They don't move in the same networks and don't have the same contacts or mentors that men have. And, in some places, they "can't enjoy property rights and inheritance."
Verveer said the lack of a middle class was a significant hurdle to economic development in many African countries.
"This 'missing middle' is where genuine growth and job creation and opportunities for societies really lie," she said.
Overall, African countries have increased total exports to the United States steadily since the federal law took effect in 2000. That year, the value of exports from Africa soared 62 percent from the previous year to $27.6 billion. It more than quadrupled to $113.5 billion in 2008.
The worldwide recession gutted exports by 45 percent, but the value bounced back to $93 billion last year, according to the U.S. Census.
The 47 African women arrived a couple of weeks ago in New York, where they got advice from fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg before they split up to go to various cities. Aab's group of 15, which included women running fashion-design and home-decor firms, headed for Los Angeles. They continued Wednesday to Washington, D.C.
Aab's timing couldn't be better for her business. Interest in African fashions has surged with First Lady Michelle Obama and celebrities, such as singer Beyonce Knowles, wearing clothing created by African designers. And Aab wears clothing she designed with L.A.'s fashionistas.
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