To foster intra-African electronic trade amongst women and youths under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the COMESA Federation of Women in Business (COMFWB) and the African Electronic Trade (AeTrade) Group last week, jointly launched Sokokuu, Africa’s premier e-commerce portal, to traders in COMESA region.
By Stephen Enoch
The Sokokuu launch took place on the sidelines of the 2nd COMFWB annual regional trade fair which took place on 22 – 24 September 2021 in Lusaka, Zambia.
As Africa’s premier online marketplace, Sokokuu seeks to boost the competitiveness of African SMEs through digital capacity building, access to business information and markets across the continent and globally. Sokokuu, a Kiswahili word for ‘Central or Common Market’ seeks to digitally facilitate the rapid implementation of the AfCFTA by boosting intra-African trade, particularly the growth of women and youth-led SMEs.
Established in 1993, the COMESA Federation of Women in Business (COMFWB) seeks to integrate women into trade across the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) region, with a vision of inspiring women entrepreneurs to either set up new businesses or expand their existing enterprises so as to advance women’s economic conditions across the region.
Similarly, the AeTrade Group, the promoters of Sokokuu, seeks to advance and implement an e-empowerment program that will heighten both intra-and inter-African trade. Thus, AeTrade is keen on creating a digital business ecosystem that will transform Africa’s socio economic environment by enabling women, youth and SMEs leverage modern technologies, for businesses and trade.
While applauding the fact that African women were in the mainstream of commerce across the continent, Ambassador Albert Muchanga, the African Union’s Commissioner for Economic Development, Trade, Industry and Mining, said women ought to be equal partners in business processes, noting that the fact that women constituted a greater number of delegates at the Sokokuu launch event indicated that Africa was on the path towards socio-economic development.
Muchanga noted that the partnership between the AU and AeTrade towards the development of entrepreneurship in Africa including building the Sokokuu platform was already yielding positive results.
“With the Sokokuu platform, there are no more border complications; it fosters a direct link between the buyer and seller, facilitated by efficient logistics and payment systems. The Covid-19 lockdown measures and restrictions have led to the proliferation of e-commerce and digital trade in Africa. Recent research estimates show a good percentage of Nigerians, Kenyans and South Africans are increasingly shopping online,” he said.
Muchanga also said the AU was partnering with the AeTrade Group to mount an African Union Youth Start Up Pavilion at the forthcoming second edition of the Intra-African Trade Fair (IATF), scheduled for the 15th to 21st of November 2021 in Durban, South Africa. The theme of the youth start-up pavilion would be: “Empowering Youth Start Ups as Key Drivers of Africa’s Economic and Digital Transformation.”
In his response, Mr Mulualem Syoum, the CEO/Chairman of AeTrade Group, noted that the launch of Sokokuu signified the AU’s deep commitment to the principles and ideals of African unity, which he said, was also exemplified by Ambassador Muchanga’s remarkable commitment to the advancement of trade and business in Africa, describing the AU chief as a true champion of Sokokuu.
Mr Syoum asserted that Sokokuu was more than just a marketplace and instead described it as a digital platform fostering seamless trading in Africa’s SME ecosystem, providing capacity building and access to finance, amongst others. He said AeTrade also had the capacity to support African governments with e-governance solutions which will improve the productivity of all businesses with remarkable impact on smaller businesses.
“We have a responsibility to ensure businesses remain afloat including through our online coaching for business individuals, offering practical tips for business enhancement. We are confident that based on our model, micro businesses can grow gradually and become sustainable overtime. Due to the negative impact of the pandemic on businesses, we are advocating to governments and partners to sponsor MSMEs to participate in the Sokokuu marketplace.
“The most critical issue we need to address is lack of access to financing, with women being majorly disadvantaged in this situation. We therefore wish to push an agenda that will ensure business women in COMESA find the tools for real empowerment, by solving this man-made problems. We need the government to support us to challenge the financial system by ensuring it works for the people – and not vice versa,” Mr Syoum urged.
Paula Ingabire, the Rwandan Minister for ICTs and Innovation, while speaking at the launch event, said the digital economy had seen a speedy growth during the Covid-19 pandemic as embracing e-commerce became imperative. Ms Ingabire said the Rwandan government had accordingly commenced engaging the country’s SMEs on the opportunities that Sokokuu provides, noting that the initiative was key to ensuring both women and youths were not left behind in the AfCFTA’s digital economy.
“Sokokuu is also a platform for women and youths to tell their stories and inspire each other. As individuals benefit from the access to markets and financing provided by this platform, Sokokuu and the AfCFTA will be unlocking intra-African trade for hundreds of SMEs across the continent. I congratulate the COMESA women in business for forging a strong partnership with the AeTrade Group, thereby enhancing the viability of e-commerce across the continent,” Ms Ingabire added.
Dr Joy Kategekwa, Head of Africa Regional Office at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), who represented UNDP’s regional director for Africa, Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa, called for addressing access to financing challenges and other bottlenecks SMEs faced to stay afloat.
“Having a new dispensation in the AfCFTA, we can now cease the opportunity of cross-border trade to create new production lines and see how structural transformation and value addition looks like, especially in the context of the fight against Covid-19. Reports from the World Bank says about 100 million people would be lifted out of poverty if the AfCFTA is fully implemented. Poverty reduction would be hastily accomplished if ‘Made in Africa’ goods and services are produced,” Dr Kategekwa said.
Others who spoke in-person and virtually at the launch include Secretary General of the AfCFTA Secretariat, H.E Wamkele Mene; Assistant Secretary General of COMESA, Dr. Dave Harman representing Secretary General Chileshe Kapwepwe; and Minister of Trade of Rwanda, Hon. Beata Haribyamana. There were also Dr. Amany Asfour, interim President of the African Business Council (AfBC); Chairperson of COMFWB, Ms. Maureen M. Sumbwe; CEO of COMFWB, Ms. Ruth Negash as well as Dr. Dana Brown, Dean of the John Sprott Business School at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
The AeTrade group has mobilized US$20 billion capital to provide access to finance for African women, youth and SMEs. In the next three years, the Group is targeting to create 600,000 SMEs which will in turn create 22 million jobs in the African continent via the Sokokuu platform.
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