By Robin Holzhauer and Amelia Shaw
[Southern Africa, October 2022] Women entrepreneurs in three African nations got a boost for their businesses through a seminar with a top marketing executive from the social media platform WhatsApp, hosted by the U.S. government.
WhatsApp marketing executive Ben Supple led a seminar for more than 100 women entrepreneurs across Africa in an AWE Connected event hosted by the U.S. government.
More than 100 alumnae from the U.S.-led initiative Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) tuned in from Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Zambia to hear WhatsApp’s Global Head of Civic Engagement Ben Supple, who talked about how businesses can expand their customer base using WhatsApp – currently one of the most popular social media platforms in Africa.
Supple’s role at the social media giant is to build strategic partnerships with governments, NGOs and publishers and fact checkers who seek to use WhatsApp’s business products to engage with citizens across WhatsApp’s 2.2 billion users.
According to the market research company Statista, WhatsApp has more than 40 million users in Africa, and projects this number to rise to more than 66 million by 2025 – in part because the platform offers a cheap, easy way for people to connect on the continent, says Business Insider Africa. In most African countries, calling and texting through WhatsApp is much cheaper than using the local phone service.
The seminar was part of the AWE Connected speaker series, a U.S. government initiative which brings together AWE alumnae across the globe and connects them with dynamic U.S. experts in business and technology to spur growth among women-led businesses. In this case, the goal was to help African women entrepreneurs adopt digital tools and technology so they can more easily expand their businesses and connect with new customers.
Ben Supple of WhatsApp, (upper left corner) and some of the participants at the AWE Connected Digital Marketing seminar.
Entrepreneurs peppered Supple with questions on a range of topics, from countering misinformation, to remaining authentic and credible, to staying safe as a woman entrepreneur in the digital world. They also asked how WhatsApp charts customer feedback and sought advice on protecting accounts from hackers and ne’er-do-wells.
The session was full of discussion on business do’s and don’ts. For example, one woman entrepreneur in Zimbabwe shared how after she allowed one of her followers to have administrator access to her WhatsApp group, the follower hijacked the network she had built and kicked her out of the group.
Example of Tanzanian Catherine Shembilu’s smart marketing of her company Vikapu Bomba – giving a carefree, beachy feeling.
Several women also shared their stories of success. Tanzania’s Catherine Shembilu, founder of Vikapu Bomba, discussed how using a combination of Instagram, WhatsApp, and other media platforms helps her to better reach her local audience, and also expand her business into global markets. Shembilu exports her baskets and other woven goods to the United States and Europe through online artisan bazaars like The Little Market.
Bwalya Phakati, the Zambian entrepreneur behind Towani Beauty Creams, explained how digital marketing allowed her to steadily grow her beauty and personal care brand, which supports job creation in sub-sectors such as retail and distribution.
AWE Alumna Bwalya Phakathi of Zambia uses in-person and digital marketing to successfully promote her business, creating jobs in the retail sector.
The AWE Connected session not only honed the women’s professional skills, it also reinforced the “sisterhood” many alumnae feel with other AWE graduates in their countries and around the world.
“One of the most important things I gained through AWE is the network,” says Maphala Phiri, director and founder of Real Hair by Lorraine in Zimbabwe. She said she was inspired to hear from such a high-ranking WhatsApp executive – and get in touch with more women entrepreneurs like her.
“I have met so many inspiring women. We have managed to create a sisterhood, a network of like-minded women,” Phiri said. “If I need advice, I can simply tap into our network. In turn, I also share my experiences with other women and inspire them to own businesses.”
AWE Alumna Lorraine Maphala Phiri runs a hair salon in Zimbabwe and says she felt inspired by WhatsApp – and the AWE network.
The Academy for Women Entrepreneurs is a global economic empowerment program established in 2019 by the U.S. Department of State. It provides women entrepreneurs with the knowledge, networks, and access they need to launch and scale successful businesses using the online program, DreamBuilder, developed by Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Freeport-McMoRan Foundation. Operating in 100 countries around the world, AWE has empowered 7,000 women entrepreneurs in more than 20 African nations.
The Office of the U.S. Speaker Program recruits dynamic American experts to engage international audiences on topics of strategic importance to the United States. Programs are conducted in person and through virtual engagement platforms. Key policy priorities include security such as countering disinformation and cybersecurity; defeating ISIS and extremist groups; economic prosperity; educational diplomacy; energy security; and open government and civil society. The office conducts approximately 650 speaker programs per year.
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