When Women Help Women, Entrepreneurs Thrive

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Haoua Cheick Seip, IESC volunteer expert, on assignment in Ampara, Sri Lanka, in 2011.

When Women Help Women, Entrepreneurs Thrive

By Marissa Germain

Women in West African cultures’some of which are historically matrilineal’hold positions of respect and strength. As the providers of shelter, food, wisdom, and comfort, they have often been called to firmly hold their communities together in the face of conflict and strife. It is not uncommon for women to turn to entrepreneurship’often at a very young age’to support their immediate and extended families.

In Mali, for example, the adult literacy rate for women is around 22 percent. Business ideas are hatched at the kitchen table, and business skills are not honed in school, but with time and experience and, perhaps most importantly, with the help of other women in the community.

IESC is hoping to leverage this existing inclination toward informal business mentorship into a more formal structure, piloting a mentoring program that will create a space for relationships to build between experienced entrepreneurs with those who are just starting out.

At the heart of this endeavor is IESC volunteer expert Haoua Cheick Seip, a woman who clearly embodies the West African qualities of strength, determination, and support. Born and raised in Mali, Haoua left at the age of 22 for Ivory Coast, where she earned a degree in chemistry. She emigrated to the United States and started working as a management consultant. Haoua had always been inspired by the vibrant West African women who started businesses from nothing and grew them into successful enterprises.

As she prepared for a trip back to Ivory Coast, some female business associates asked her to bring back cosmetics from New York. In return, they would send her back with a selection of their tie-dyed goods to sell in the United States. That experience led Haoua to build an incredibly successful import-export business.

Since 2004, Haoua has volunteered with IESC six times, in Ghana, Benin, Swaziland, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Lesotho. She has trained artisans to access markets and develop export-quality products. In 2012 in Sri Lanka, for example, she worked with the Sri Lanka Peace Collection, an initiative to assist war widows in traditional hand-loomed textiles and creating a competitive brand for international markets.

For her upcoming assignment in Mali, Haoua will work with IESC’s project team in Bamako to design a women’s entrepreneurship mentoring program, facilitate the first meeting of mentors and their mentees, and plan for the long-term growth of the program.

Haoua is eager for the opportunity to work one-on-one with women business owners to get to know their real problems and figure out how best to assist them.

‘They need to figure out how to grow their businesses and then they need money to move forward’and understand the best ways to use it,’ Haoua said.

While capital investment in these businesses can catalyze growth, there is no substitute for having a supportive network. Haoua’s unique knowledge of the challenges women entrepreneurs in the region face will ensure that the mentoring program responds to women’s real world needs and positions them for long-term success.


Marissa Germain is a senior program associate with the Finance For Food Security and Women Entrepreneurs Program. Implemented by IESC, the program is funded by USAID and the Swedish development agency, Sida, through the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance. The program is expanding access to credit to businesses in the agriculture sector and to women entrepreneurs and associations by building their capacity to become creditworthy borrowers. FFSWE also strengthens banks who are part of USAID’s Development Credit Authority, increasing their capacity and willingness to loan to small and medium enterprises. In the first program year, 2,600 businesses registered with the program. Of these participating businesses 62 percent are owned by women. 

An Entrepreneur Focused on Helping Women

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Sanogo Diarra owns a company that employs 22 women from her neighborhood.

Sanogo Diarra’s fruit processing company has created good jobs for women in her community

It was 2009, and Sanogo Diarra saw that women in her neighborhood needed jobs. More than that, they wanted jobs. And she wanted to help them. In Mali’s capital city of Bamako, she founded a company that processes dried fruits and vegetables.

With her company, Unit頤e S飨age Kadiatou, Diarra was determined to create good, steady jobs for women.

By 2015 the company was in full expansion mode; in fact, it was awarded a contract to export three tons of dried mangos for regional and European markets, and that was in addition to a steady supply of requests from local supermarkets. Unfortunately, Diarra couldn’t keep up with the pace of demand. She had a cash flow problem, not enough workers, and not enough equipment.

‘I was desperate to meet the many demands of the market,’ she said.

“This company will be a model in the region.”

‘ Sanogo Diarra, business owner

That’s where IESC’s Finance for Food Security and Women Entrepreneurs Program comes in. The program, jointly funded by USAID and the Swedish government, connects small and medium businesses in agriculture or those owned by women with financing to help them grow and expand

For many entrepreneurs around the world, the loan application process can be extremely daunting.

The program worked closely with Diarra as she prepared her loan application to Bank of Africa. It helped her to deal with the bank throughout the process, responding to their questions and requests for additional information.

Bank of Africa is a partner bank in the Development Credit Authority, a USAID initiative that reduces some of the risk for banks to help get more capital in the hands of entrepreneurs and business owners in developing countries.

Diarra was eventually approved for a $25,000 loan. She used the infusion of capital to improve facilities at the company. The company has built a ripening shed with a washing area and purchased some additional drying equipment. They also bought fresh mangos for the 2016 season. Finally, Diarra used the loan to hire the workforce she needed and wanted: women in the neighborhood seeking an opportunity to make some money.

Today, the company produces one-and-a-half tons of dried mangos every day. Of its 23 employees, 22 are women.

‘With the will and the expertise we have today, this company will be a model in the region in the field of dried mango exports,’ Diarra said.


This story is made possible with the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of IESC and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

IBEX Trains Bankers, Entrepreneurs on Agribusiness

Monrovia – Liberia’s agriculture sector is a potential source of the largest employment for Liberians but is yet to experience any significant growth. The low level of commercial banks’ involvement in the sector is partly responsible for the prevailing situation. The banks seem reluctant to lend to smallholder farmers and agribusinesses because they consider agriculture as a high-risk sector.

However, there are ongoing efforts to change the situation for the better. A new signed agreement between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Afriland First Bank aims to increase agricultural lending through an enhanced relationship and capacity that will help provide for working capital for operations, inputs, or equipment to smallholder farmers.

As part of the process, on February 16 and 17, USAID Liberia-Investing for Business Expansion (IBEX) Program held an agribusiness lending training for more than 20 bankers and more than 45 local entrepreneurs including farmers in Monrovia and other parts of the country. The training increased bank staffs’ knowledge and broadened their understanding of agribusiness lending, proper client appraisals and deal structuring. The participants also learned more about the loan processes and requirements for borrowers.

The event was organized by IBEX and facilitated by United States-based Volunteer Executive (VE), Allyn Lamb. All nine commercial banks in Liberia were represented by their risk managers, relationship, and credit officers. Topics covered were Business Plans, Agricultural Risk Management, Understanding the Market Opportunities, Value Chain Financing, Basic Farm Record Keeping, Risk Rating, Evaluating Loan Requests, and Problem Solving.

Archie Hanky, a staff in the Liberia Bank for Development & Investment’s Credit Appraisal and Development Lending Department, observed that agribusiness lending is a new phenomenon and banks do not want to risk lending to agriculture clients. ‘Smallholder farmers are a significant part of the Liberian economy and should be given increased access to credit to be able to grow and expand their businesses,’ Usurf Barh, Credit Manager at Afriland First Bank, added. Mai Cole, Risk Analyst at United Bank for Africa, described the training as insightful.

‘The new knowledge and skills acquired from this training would now enable me to properly appraise agricultural SMEs, Mai said. The participants named difficulties in production, distribution, transportation, poor road network, storage facilities, post-harvest handling and funding as some of their key challenges.



This news release is made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It was originally posted on FrontPageAfrica. The contents are the sole responsibility of IESC and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

In Liberia, Locally-Produced Furniture Gets a Financial Boost

Emmanuel Wesley, owner of Zeo Furniture Construction, will use his loan to add a showroom to feature his custom-made doors and furniture.

Emmanuel Wesley Sr. is determined to dispel the long-held notion that Liberia doesn’t produce good quality home and office furniture. Wesley is owner and chief executive officer of Zeo Furniture Construction Company in Paynesville, outside Liberia’s capital of Monrovia. He is confident in the quality of his product, and his goal is for Zeo to produce a large volume of excellent furniture that competes with imported furniture.

But Wesley has faced a significant obstacle in meeting his goal: lack of financing options and access to commercial credit. Liberia has one of the most complex loan application processes in Africa, and Wesley struggled to understand the process and requirements.

Through a routine outreach campaign, Wesley learned about the USAID-funded Investing for Business Expansion Program, which IESC implements. The program provides services to financial institutions and small and medium businesses to increase access to finance, grow businesses, and expand the economy. He immediately established a relationship with the program.

Wesley had previously applied for a business loan, and IBEX reviewed his loan application package and provided additional recommendations. For example, Wesley did not have a bank account and therefore had no longstanding relationship with the bank. IBEX recommended that he open one, and after several months of preparations that included cash flow and risk analyses, he was finally approved for a $40,000 loan.

‘At some point during the loan process I felt frustrated and almost gave up, but through the help of the program and relationship built with the bank, things started to become smoother.”

He plans to use the loan to buy raw materials to produce high quality furniture products that will meet international standards and needs of the local market. Zeo currently has 25 employees and with the capital to expand the business, Wesley plans to hire more workers in the future.

This story is made possible with the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of IESC and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

With Access to Credit, Liberian Manufacturer Meets Farmers’ Demand for Agricultural Machinery

Benedict Sampson, CEO of Moonlight, standing beside one of their many agro machines.

From his garage under a shade tree in the central Liberian town Gbarnga, Benedict Sampson applied for another loan, a loan he didn’t get because he couldn’t afford the bank’s repayment terms.

Sampson is chief executive officer at Moonlight Metal Works and Garage. His business specializes in agricultural equipment and tools, demand for these products is high among his farming customers.

Sampson had received a business loan before, in fact, he was the first to receive a loan backed by the Development Credit Authority (DCA), a program that puts credit in the hands of entrepreneurs around the world by guaranteeing a portion of the loan.

Sampson needed another loan to buy equipment and upgrade his services to meet customer demand, but he was getting frustrated with the complicated loan process.

Then Sampson got connected with USAID’s Investing for Business Expansion Program (IBEX), which works with both banks and borrowers to increase access to finance for small and medium businesses in Liberia.

‘We were lucky to come across IBEX,’ Sampson said. ‘They helped us put together our loan package with a comprehensive business plan and advised us [where] to take our loan package.’

The company’s DCA-backed loan application was successful, and now Moonlight is selling advanced agricultural machinery, including motorized rice and cassava mills that sell between $850 and $3,000.

Sampson is currently working with IBEX on a new loan to stock a retail store in the capital city of Monrovia, which will save people time and resources having to travel to Gbarnga for high quality agricultural equipment.

Today, Sampson has office space and 18 employees who are earning good wages. He believes with continued support, his dream of owning a steel factory one day will become a reality. ‘I want IBEX to be in Liberia for a long time,’ Sampson said.

To date, the IBEX program has facilitated loans to 33 other businesses like Moonlight, totaling $7.5 million dollars.

This story is made possible with the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of IESC and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

Connecting Liberian Farmers with Credit

  From left: Hamadou Bayo (Afriland), Watchen Bruce
(IBEX Program), and Anthony Chan (USAID).

MONROVIA ‘ In a signing ceremony on Tuesday, October 13, at the Mamba Point Hotel, representatives from the USAID mission in Liberia and Afriland First Bank Liberia signed a risk-sharing agreement between the bank and USAID’s Development Credit Authority (DCA). The agreement is designed to increase agricultural lending in Liberia.  

In his brief remarks, USAID Liberia’s mission director, Anthony Chan, highlighted the aid agency’s commitment to working with Liberia’s micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises to grow the Liberian economy. He hoped the new partnership with Afriland First Bank would complement other USAID-sponsored programs focused on private sector growth and expanding employment opportunities.

Read the rest of this story on the main IESC website.

In Lebanon, A Coastal Bakery Flourishes

Naji in his bakery, which he has expanded with microfinance loan from IESC USAID
Naji expanded his bakery business with a loan through the Lebanon Investment in Microfinance Program.

Ever since Naji returned from Brazil to settle in Jbeil, Mount Lebanon, he has worked to share his passion for baking with the local community. Naji wanted to expand his bakery and cater to the summer tourists who flock to Jbeil for its coastal beauty. But in order to expand, he needed capital.

After learning about the Association d’Entraide Professionnelle (AEP), a microfinance institution supported by the Lebanon Investment in Microfinance Program, Naji applied for a loan and received $4,000. Naji used the loan to purchase an ice cream machine that would appeal to summer tourists and local residents. He also purchased a delivery car, which helped him to expand the reach of his business opportunities.

Due to these enhancements, Naji’s monthly net income increased by 20 percent and the bakery’s popularity flourished. Naji is very proud of his achievements. ‘The loan made my life much easier and came at the right time and occasion,’ he said.

In 2009, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) started the Lebanon Investment in Microfinance Program, implemented by the International Executive Service Corps through the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance. The LIM program is designed to increase access to finance in rural areas of Lebanon by supporting microfinance organizations.

View this success story in PDF format

IBEX Program to Receive 2014 Golden Image Award

IESC is proud to announce that on July 16, the IBEX program will be awarded the 2014 Golden Image Award.  The Golden Image Award is a national Liberian meritorious award bestowed to individuals or organizations that have made selfless contributions to peace and humanity nationally or internationally. The giving of the award is part of a series of national activities leading up to Liberia’s Independence Day on July 26. The ceremony will take place at Monrovia City Hall and will feature the vice president of Liberia Hon. Joseph N. Boakai as the keynote speaker. Please see this award letter for more information.

US Deputy Secretary of State Visits IBEX Program

On June 19, the United States Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Heather Higginbottom visited the Liberia-IBEX Program. She met with IBEX staff and beneficiaries including 10 Liberian women entrepreneurs. The beneficiaries highlighted the services that IBEX provides and thanked USAID for its continued support of the program. Towards the end of the visit Ms. Higginbottom made note of the growing attention Africa is receiving from the international community. “A big team is investing in Africa. And a big component of it is how we really move forward on our initiatives, such as Power Africa, drive forward development and increase investment in various places,” she said.  Read more…

Busy with Bees in Lebanon

Leyla probably doesn’t think of herself as being in “agribusiness,” but that’s the way she spends most of her working and waking hours.  She’s the major breadwinner in her family of five in a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, and keeps her family’s  income stream flowing by growing olives and other crops as well as beekeeping.

Beehives in Leyla’s Field

Recently, she took a big step forward by applying for and getting a loan from a microfinance institution Al Majmoua.  Al Majmoua is a part of the USAID-funded “Lebanon Investment in Microfinance” program implemented by IESC and VEGA (Volunteers for Economic Growth).

Leyla’s loan was triggered by a need to counter the loss of a large number of bees due to changing weather conditions.  As she weighed her options and looked ahead, she worked out a loan package that included the purchase of a delivery truck, upgraded her ability to cultivate fruit trees, restored her bee population and honey production, and helped bolster her olive oil business.  Her $5,000 loan is putting her farm on a firmer financial footing and has already increased her family’s monthly income from $500 to $700.

Since its start-up in 2009, the Lebanon Investment in Microfinance (LIM) program has provided 11,024 loans to small businesses in Lebanon.

*Personal names have been altered to protect the privacy of our partners

IBEX Launch Event

IBEX Partner Banks Signing the New Agreements


On March 14, 2014 the IBEX Program signed new agreements with its partners Ecobank and IB Bank expanding their cooperation to 5 additional sectors: transportation, hospitality, construction, general merchandise, and infrastructure. Previously, the program’s scope of work was limited to the renewable energy and agricultural sectors. USAID Liberia Mission Director John Winfield attended the signing, and spoke on the need for increased access to credit for Liberian Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Also in attendance were leading members of the Liberian business community.  


IBEX Helps Liberian Farmers Secure Loans

Monrovia – Since the government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf came to power, many small and medium businesses have benefited from micro financing loans to increase their business enterprises, with less attention paid to agriculture business groups.

Recently, IESC under a USAID program, Liberia Investing for Business Expansion (IBEX) formulated a way to help informal farming groups acquire loans from banks to invest. IESC/IBEX in collaboration with one of its partners Opportunities Industrialization Centers International (OICI), work as technical advisers to the banks and agriculture sectors to build capacity.

Mrs. Watchen H. Bruce, IESC’s Chief of Party explained that the group is instrumental in helping the banking sectors build their capacity on how to lend to people in the agriculture and renewable sectors.’We also work with people in the agro-business, including farmers, Agro-processors, people selling equipment to farmers. We help them to access finance,” Bruce said. “We do assessment if the need be, we provide technical existence to small and medium businesses to help them package their loans and process for applying for loans. So far we have submitted eight projects to the banks and out of the eight, we have one approved and closed.’

Bruce also said they are currently working with handicap groups in Bong and Nimba counties who are involved in cash crops, planting and producing to resell. ‘They have physical disabilities but they are not limited by their disabilities. As a matter of fact, the president of that group is in a wheel chair and he comes to my office which is on fourth floor.” According to Bruce, the bottom line is that the disable people want to help themselves and not be seen as limited because of their physical limitations.

Mr. Michael Wotorson, OICI Technical Advisor, said that for a very long time in Liberia, banks have not taken interest in investing in agriculture therefore their partners IESC /IBEX are helping farming groups to get loans from the banks. ‘We are getting ready to take our partners to three women’s groups in Grand Gedeh. Our idea is to get these group recognized legally and thereafter IESC can take them and get them properly packaged and directed to the banks,” Wotorson said. “If the banks can give these people loans, their transformation would be incredible, because you would have poor rural women benefiting from a huge loan to invest more.