A global fund that aims to empower women entrepreneurs in developing countries — and which was spearheaded in part by first daughter Ivanka Trump — is now open for business.
The Women Entrepreneur Finance Initiative (WeFi), announced at the G-20 Summit in July and operable as of this week, will leverage over a billion dollars in financing for women’s small- and medium-size enterprises in the developing world, where women are often cut out from accessing loans through traditional banks or struggle to gain access to adequate financial resources.
Anta Babacar — a pioneering woman entrepreneur in Senegal, who manages the largest agricultural business in West Africa — calls the fund “the biggest opportunity one could dream of.”
Babacar says women often struggle to get loans from banks for business projects because the very fact that they are a woman makes them “more risky.”
Coming up in her own family business — starting from the bottom and working her way up — Babacar said she was unable to find a woman role model.
“The whole time I was wondering, is there a woman in Senegal, in the agricultural sector, who has actually made it who I can look up to, and I was sad to look around and see nobody,” she said.
The World Bank estimates that the unique challenges facing women have led to $300 billion credit deficit for women-owned small- and medium-sized enterprises in the developing world.
Caren Grown, senior director for gender at the World Bank Group, says the new fund is the first of its kind and will take a “multi-pronged, eco-system approach” to tackle the collection of constraints facing women entrepreneurs — ranging from access to capital to training and support.
“I’ve been working on this topic for many years, and having a facility dedicated specifically to women with this level of finance — we’ve never had something to this scale — something that really brings together the commercial private sector with governments,” said Grown.
Fourteen countries have collectively contributed $340 million to the fund ($50 million of that is from the United States), which will be used to enable at least an additional $800 million in international financial institutions and commercial financing.
One of the keys to getting the new fund off the ground, Grown says, has been the advocacy on the part of the first daughter, among others such as Chancellor Angela Merkel and IMF Managing Director Christine LaGarde.
“The high-level advocacy has been really important,” Grown said. “We needed that push, and also the environment is right.”
The concept of the fund grew out of a conversation between the first daughter and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim early in the Trump administration, according to senior officials from the White House and World Bank, with the two identifying that there is not a comparable initiative. While the first daughter has no role in the running of the facility, she will continue to play an outside advocacy role going forward.
“The progress that the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (WeFi) has made over the past few months is encouraging and exciting,” Trump said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing my work with the World Bank Group via this facility to support women entrepreneurs around the globe and remove existing barriers to their growth and success.”
The fund will seek to create more independent entrepreneurs like Babacar, whose unique success story was made possible in large part thanks to the foresight of her father, who when given the choice to invest in Babacar’s education or one of her two older brothers, chose to invest in his daughter.
“In Senegal, back then, most girls did not go to school. For my dad to make that choice was really not understandable at that time, but he followed his gut that there are no limits for girls,” Babacar said.
Her father’s investment paid off.
Now in her early 30s, Babacar manages her family’s business that her father started in the 1970s with $120 he received from Anta’s grandfather to buy 100 chicks. After multiple setbacks, the poultry-focused business has grown into an empire that also produces flour.
The idea to break into the flour market was Babacar’s idea. And she’s made another change too: Hiring more women to positions of power within the company.
Babacar says women often face discrimination in the hiring process because of their gender.
“For certain positions, they will not even look at the resume, they will just look at the picture, man on one side, woman on the other, and they will pick the man,” she said, adding that pregnancy is viewed as “a sickness.”
“If it was a man, we would not be missing four or five months. For that reason, they would have chosen to put a man in that position, which I think is really unfair,” she added.
Now in a position to hire herself, Babacar sees it as her responsibility to not only help other qualified women advance in her business but also to serve as the role model she never had for other aspiring women entrepreneurs.