Sylvianne Valmont is the chief executive of the government-funded Small Enterprise Promotion Agency in Seychelles, a nation of 15 small islands and a population of 84,000 people, located on the Indian Ocean, some 994 miles east of Kenya. Valmont’s agency employs 28 people and has an annual budget of $319,000 to develop and promote small businesses. That puts Valmont at the forefront of the struggle to make sure that entrepreneurs in her country get access to markets in the United States for their exports.
A former English teacher with a master’s degree from Warwick University in Britain, Valmont was one of the 36 female entrepreneurs from Africa who came to the United States last week for the 10th anniversary of the African Growth Opportunity Act, or AGOA, which was meant to open U.S. markets to exports from sub-Saharan Africa.
During an interview with The Network Journal while she was in Washington, Valmont spoke about the potential of the small enterprise sector in the Seychelles to export several goods, including craft items, indigenous jewelry, pottery artifacts and natural oils such as cinnamon and coconut oils.
Her agency has made strides in capacity building and training of entrepreneurs throughout the country, she said. It has been involved in counseling those who want to start a business, especially in the coffee and artisan sectors, and it has provided advice on how to gain access to credit facilities. Since the agency started in 2004, it has helped 1,800 small businesses and recently expanded its outreach to villages far away from large cities. It now sends its staff to trade shows every week.
“We’ve got very good feedback. These people have not had export opportunities and that’s why we are here in the United States to establish contracts. We want to do more capacity building,” Valmont said.
The Obama administration has expanded the AGOA program significantly, elevating engagement with emerging and existing African powers and launching three new Strategic Dialogues with key countries. In 2009, President Obama announced a $3 billion global food security initiative that has the support of the world’s major and emerging donor nations.
The U.S. and Angola also signed a new Trade and Investment Framework Agreement and launched a Strategic Partnership Dialogue, setting the stage for improved bilateral cooperation on energy, trade, security and agriculture. Last week, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted the ninth U.S.-Sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum.
Unlike previous Forums, this year’s was held both in Washington, from Aug. 2 to 3, and in Kansas City, Mo., from Aug. 5 to 6, to allow for a deeper focus on agribusiness. The Forum also emphasized the role of women through a two-week AGOA Women’s Entrepreneurship Program to provide tools to better integrate African women into the global economy.
In addition, as a follow up to President Obama’s Entrepreneurship Summit in April, the board of directors of the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation on June 24 approved up to $150 million in financing to support the establishment of a private equity investment fund designed to invest in companies in West Africa.
Valmont said she learned a lot from her U.S. visit and established valuable contacts with other African businesswomen and with her U.S. hosts. She emphasized that Africa has changed substantially in the past decade or so, with new leadership and the political will to create the right environment for growth. In Seychelles, for example, a pro-growth President James Michel instituted democratic reforms and allowed businesses to flourish. That’s partly why Seychelles performed well on the 2008 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, ranking second among 48 sub-Saharan African countries.
However, some challenges remain. Valmont said she still struggles to get her countrymen and women be “more committed” to entrepreneurship. She also said cheaper products from China are flooding the market in Seychelles, making it difficult for local entrepreneurs to compete.
“We want to promote local products, but it’s difficult with all the Chinese products coming in,” she said. “We are trying to get the government to change the policy so we can put in place some control measures, [such as] through higher taxes for import products.”