Prestigious African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program Visits Seattle

By Aaron Long, Intern and University of Washington Student


AWEP w Monica Mendoza for Workshop

Recently, I was blessed with the opportunity to work on a professional exchange program with the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the State Department’s premier professional exchange program. This exchange, called the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP), centered around businesswomen running companies in the agriculture and cosmetics sectors. In reading their respective biographies in preparation for my day with them, I was struck by their motivation and big goals for their companies.

I met the delegation of ten women from ten different African countries about two weeks later after their arrival in Seattle, by way of Chicago, New York and Portland. After spending the day accompanying them during their meetings with local businesses, learning about their areas of expertise, and answering any questions they had, I realized that not only were they motivated businesswomen, but also inquisitive learners and creative problem-solvers.

AWEP HH with Hosts Bob and Judith

The first thing I noticed about the visitors was their friendly nature and unique styles – one women wore a bright orange konga, while another wore a beautiful draped green garment.Upon meeting them we quickly struck up conversations about their experience having dinner with a local host family, one of which is pictured above. After a brief introduction to the World Affairs Council by Rachel Paris-Lambert, the Director of the International Visitor Program, we set off to our first appointment, which was with the Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Market. We filed into the conference room of their Wallingford-based headquarters and listened as Executive Director Chris Curtis gave a brief presentation explaining the function, purpose, and mission of the community-based non-profit organization. Ms. Curtis described the seven farmers markets located in Seattle, as well as how the organization helps protect and support farmers and connects them to the right customer base.

What followed the presentation was a spirited and quick-moving conversation between Ms. Curtis and the visitors. Many of their questions focused on the relationship between the Farmers Market and farmers and vendors, and their customers, as well as the challenges typically faced by local farmers. Many women related elements of the Seattle Farmers Markets to their experiences and situations in Africa, outlining the aspects of their respective industries that could be improved using their newly learned tactics and methods utilized by the vendors associated with the Seattle farmers markets. The visitors’ energy and enthusiasm was readily apparent, and they could have been there all day had we not had to whisk them off to their next appointment! They left having learned the benefits of educating the public on their product, eliminating the middleman from their negotiations, and protecting local markets.

Pacific Coast Fruit Co and AWEP (2)

While the two visitors in the cosmetics industry took a cab to their next destination, the rest of the group headed south towards Kent, Washington, where they met with members of the Pacific Coast Fruit Company and Aztec Imports. Whereas their first appointment focused on farmers who often sell their produce directly to the customer, their second appointment concentrated on large-scale distribution of produce and business relationships with farmers. Joe Hanson of the Pacific Coast Fruit Company and Ruben Cruz of Aztec Imports gave us a rundown of their distribution services and treated us to a tour of their refrigerated warehouse. The visitors were interested in the variety of produce, equipment, and workers bustling throughout the space, and took pictures of the variety of produce, including  coconuts, watermelons, and asparagus. Mr. Hanson and Mr. Cruz emphasized the importance of a strong farmer-distributor relationship and expertly answered every question the visitors had. We finished the visit by enjoying some of Pacific Coast Fruit Co.’s own green and orange flush honeydew, which the visitors loved so much that they took some for the road!

On the bus ride back to Seattle, I talked to the visitors about what they’d learned from their two visits that day and talked with them about their goals for their businesses. Mboka Mwanitu, the founder of a successful startup agribusiness in Tanzania, told me that she’d learned the importance of “integration and focusing on getting customers what they want,” and described an idea for a shared producer and distributor office space. Nkiru Okpareke, whose company produces high-end greenhouse grown vegetables for the Nigerian market, prioritized a strong relationship with farmers, saying “it’s really important to work with farmers, especially as a distributor, because having a strong relationship there will end up helping the customer get a better product.” Others were amazed by the giant refrigerated warehouse they’d explored and the variety of produce that they were able to get so easily from the rest of the world.

Spending the day with these motivated entrepreneurs and listening to their stories, interests and fruitful discussions provided me with another perspective on our agricultural and cultural similarities and differences. What a rare and special opportunity it was to meet these amazing entrepreneurs!

Warehouse Tour with Pacific Coast Fruit Co. (3)