— Says her company is now Liberia’s largest rice producer
Ms. Jeanine Cooper, founder of Fabrar-Liberia on Wednesday, April 17, 2019, served as one of the panelists of the World Bank Group Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (WE-FI) regional summit that discussed concrete ways to strengthen support for women-led small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in West Africa.
Ms. Cooper said Fabrar has encouraged commercial farmers to plant over 1,000 acres of rice, something that has not been done in the last 40 years. She told the gathering that her father was Liberia’s first agricultural economist and worked for the government setting up farmers’ cooperatives and rice farms in the 60s and 70s.
The Summit, which was organized by WE-FI in collaboration with the African Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, and the World Bank Group, was hosted by the Government of La Côte d’Ivoire. It was attended by more than 400 public and private sector leaders from West Africa, and other regions.
According to Ms. Cooper, her earliest memories of agriculture were from her father, telling her about the challenges and opportunities he faced with Liberian rice farmers.
“As many of you may recall, in 1979 Liberia had rice riots where urban consumers protested the increased cost of imported rice, an increase meant to support local producers. The Rice Riots were followed a year later by a coup d’état,” she added.
“We got Venture Capital backing in 2013 to build a larger factory but then Ebola struck and we had to postpone our launch until 2015.
Ms. Cooper said at the critical point when the country needed capital to grow the business, financing dried up, “therefore, we work in the missing middle in agribusiness where women, who do most of the work, are rarely seen in entrepreneurial activities, largely expected to be the domain of women, who are considered a formidable force.”
She said after two years of steadily increasing revenues, FABRAR is now Liberia’s largest rice producer, and a global leader in the production of West African Ruby Rice, “unarguably the world’s healthiest whole grain… healthier than quinoa, brown or purple or black rice, couscous or fonio…and we grow it in the country.”
World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva: “In Africa, women are more likely than men to be entrepreneurs, but they face entrenched barriers that make it hard to succeed.”
“By tackling financial, social, and legal constraints, We-Fi can help unleash the tremendous potential of women entrepreneurs as a force for job creation and economic growth,” she said.
“Through the Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa (AFAWA) program, the African Development Bank is transforming financial markets by de-risking lending to women on the continent. We invite all stakeholders to join us and be part of this game-changing initiative that will result in greater women empowerment,” said African Development Bank Group President Akinwumi A. Adesina.
“Supporting women entrepreneurs requires comprehensive solutions that focus on innovation, value chains, and use of Islamic finance. We should consider women entrepreneurs to be partners of development financial institutions, rather than recipients of financing. Our role can thus be to incubate and empower their businesses, not just to provide financing,” said Islamic Development Bank Group President Bandar M. H. Hajjar.
“ECOWAS welcomes the WE-FI initiative and member states fully support it,” said ECOWAS Commission chairman, Jean-Claude Brou.
“In addition to the various ongoing programs and projects in favor of women entrepreneurs, ECOWAS member countries will work with the WE-FI Secretariat to implement actions and reforms needed to further promote women entrepreneurship across all sectors within the region,” Brou said.
The Summit concluded with a joint Call to Action, urging wide-ranging public policy reforms and private sector actions to help women entrepreneurs overcome persistent barriers, both financial and non-financial.
Due to these constraints, female entrepreneurs in the region consistently lag men on several key indicators of business performance. A recent World Bank study found that monthly profits and sales from female-owned firms in the region were on average 34 percent and 38 percent lower, respectively, than those of male-owned firms.
Summit leaders called on governments to undertake policy and legal reforms to increase women entrepreneurs’ access to financial services, government contracts, and the basic infrastructure of the digital economy. They also highlighted the urgent need to remove labor and mobility restrictions for women and to ensure their equal rights to property.
In the past decade, African governments have improved women’s economic inclusion by implementing 71 legal and regulatory reforms—more than any other regions in the world, according to a World Bank report. While African countries have made significant progress in closing the gender gaps, further strengthening women’s roles as entrepreneurs will transform the continent.
Acknowledging the importance of public and private sector collaboration, Summit leaders underscored the vital role that private sector and civil society organizations play in improving women’s access to capital, markets, digital skills training, mentorship, and business networks. In addition, they called for better collection and reporting of sex-disaggregated data by both the public and private sectors to help measure the impact of policy reforms on women entrepreneurs.
The Summit is the first of its kind for WE-FI, a global partnership among 14 donor governments, eight multilateral development banks, and other public and private sector stakeholders, established in October 2017 and housed in the World Bank Group. Donor governments have so far committed over US $350 million to support We-Fi’s activities.
In April 2018, the World Bank Group and the Islamic Development Bank were among the recipients of We-Fi’s first round of funding to support women-owned and led SMEs, many of which are in Africa. The first allocation of $120 million is expected to mobilize over $1.6 billion in additional funds from the private sector, donors, governments, and other development partners.