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Africa’s growth vehicle: Women

Jul 01, 2010

By Patricia Sellers

Besides Africa's rise in GDP and global stature, one subject dominated the conversation at the Global Forum, hosted by Fortune and Time and CNN this past week in Cape Town. That is: the economic potential of women.

Just about all the heavy-hitters -- Bill Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and various CEOs -- spoke of the essential role of women in bringing Africa to its  potential. "Who are the entrepreneurs?' asked former Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell. "Who are the people selling in the marketplaces? Women."

As we learned, while women contribute 75% of agricultural work in Africa, they earn only 10% of total income and receive only 10% of all capital for investment in new enterprises.

Thus, a call to action. Yesterday, on my flight home to New York from Cape Town, I met a fellow named Jack Leslie who is answering the call. In addition chairing global PR firm Weber Shandwick , Leslie chairs the U.S. African Development Foundation. This is a government agency that provides $40 million annually to fund projects mainly around agriculture and food security. En route to the confab in Cape Town, with his two teenage kids in tow, Leslie visited seven of the agency's projects, in Malawi and Zimbabwe. All of the projects were run by women, he told me. "Most all of the people we met were women," Leslie said. "In Africa, women run the communities and most of the entrepreneurial businesses." No surprise, then, some 70% of the African Development Foundation's funding goes to women.

Not to toot Fortune's or my horn, but in the spirit of urging on women who can make a difference, I spent three days pre-Global Forum at an orphanage in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg. Tshepang Programme for Orphans and Vulnerable Children, which serves 249 kids, is run by a social entrepreneur named  Susan Rammekwa, who is an alum of the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Last year, Rammekwa's mentors -- Susan Wojcicki and Megan Smith of Google and lawyer Kathi Lutton, who heads litigation for Fish and Richardson law firm, hosted Rammekwa in Silicon Valley. After mentoring her, they raised money to buy a bus for the orphanage.

Lutton and I, with a group including Rammekwa and her husband, road-tripped 20 hours down to the Global Forum. Yes, on the bus. Along the way, we had a sign made; Xerox , whose top women execs including CEO Ursula Burns participate in the Fortune-State Department mentoring program, helped us find a sign-maker in Cape Town.

Here's the bus, above, parked at the Global Forum. That's Rammekwa, third from the right, and Lutton, DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman, and me in front of the vehicle. Besides participating in the Global Forum, Kullman has mentored in the Fortune-U.S. State Department program -- urging on enterprising women and learning from them along the way.

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