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10 Minutes With Chileshe Mpundu Kapwepwe, First Female Secretary General Of COMESA

Zambian-born Chileshe Mpundu Kapwepwe was appointed the Secretary General of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in July 2018, becoming the first woman to serve in that capacity. COMESA, which was established in December 1994, is a free trade area with nineteen member states stretching from Egypt to Swaziland.

I recently caught up with Kapwepwe in Sharm El Sheikh during the 2018 edition of the Business For Africa forum which was co-hosted by COMESA. She spoke to me about what her organization is doing to boost intra-African trade, as how we can ensure that more women become part of shaping Africa’s economic and political agenda.

Intra-African trade still remains below the global par, struggling to rise above 15%. What is COMESA doing to fix this?

One of the major barriers to Intra-Africa trade is the constraint on supportive infrastructure. There is a huge deficiency in terms of adequate transportation systems and general infrastructure, which is the only way you will have the linkages and markets and be able to move goods and services more efficiently. If that is not addressed as a first, we will still have the challenges and constraints of really moving into a much higher level of Intra-African trade. We are still exporting raw materials as opposed to value-addition and creation of our own products, and we are importing finished goods. Why can’t we have that value-addition within Africa and then trade among ourselves as opposed to just exporting raw materials and importing finished products? African countries need to focus on industrialization, and that’s a very important issue for us at COMESA. We are focusing on Agribusiness and looking at how we can deploy the right technology and skills to be able to increase the capacity of producing finished goods or just adding value from raw materials to semi-finished or semi-processed so that we can have that increase in capacity and in products that we can then trade amongst ourselves. I think that’s an aspect we need to focus on. There’s also the issue of trade facilitation and how goods move between countries. There are so many barriers: You need so many different documents if you are going to another country and many times you are held at the border for hours, making your goods less competitive. It’s very important that we modernize our border management and also explore ways we can use technology to facilitate trade. At COMESA we are looking at digital economic integration which means we are looking at e-commerce and exploring ways we can connect traders electronically so that they start trading among themselves without physically seeing each other. We are also looking at how we can develop adequate e-logistics systems to support that trade as well as e-legislation to support this new environment with the formulation of legal structures.

Earlier this year, COMESA launched the 50 Million African Women Speak (50MWS) project in various African countries. What is this initiative about?

I am particularly excited about this project and I was delighted to find that it was already in its initial stages when I joined COMESA. It is actually collaboration between COMESA, the East African Community and ECOWAS and supported by the African Development Bank. It is essentially an economic empowerment initiative for African women. Again, we are looking at using technology to link women entrepreneurs in all those countries who can then share financial and non-financial information and experiences amongst themselves. Through the platform, women can find mentorship and support so they can interact and learn without physically sitting next to each other and have experiences. In essence, we are collapsing the space and the time so that people can engage and they don’t have to learn from scratch; they can have mentors, they can collaborate, and maybe form groups and so on. Right now we are still building the system, but we hope to get it off the ground in the course of next year.

You recently became the first female Secretary General of COMESA. How can we ensure that more women become part of shaping Africa’s economic and political agenda?

I think women must be qualified, trained and must have experience so that when we do take advantage of situations where they have the quota system, we are ready to take those positions on merit and not just because we are women. Women must bring the required skill set to do the job. People say to me ‘You’re the first woman to lead COMESA, but I am quick to remind them that I did not get the job because it was time for a woman to lead COMESA, but because I was the best qualified. It was a competitive process and both men and women applied for the job. The best person with the skills and required experience emerged, and it just happened to be a woman. I think this is the way we should go. Women must demand the right to be heard but they must also be ready to bring the skills and the qualification and the mindset that is needed to do that job.

Women have the skills and the knowledge to bring to a lot of issues that are crucial to development in Africa. We want to participate and we make up half the population so why shouldn’t we be in half of the positions in cabinet or in the boardroom. We have women who can do the jobs and I think choosing people to do a job should not be based on their gender, but their capabilities. Sometimes I get interviewed more about me being a woman than the fact that I am the COMESA Secretary General, which wouldn’t be an issue if I were a man. It shouldn’t be a focus anymore and I’m hoping that in the future it won’t be a big deal anymore. So basically, I’d say women must demand for a seat at the table but ensure they are properly equipped when the opportunity arises.

As a co-host of the 2018 Business For Africa Conference, what do you want this conference to accomplish?

During this conference, we should be able to connect an array of stakeholders – both policy makers and investors. We want the policy makers to hear the challenges investors are encountering in the process of doing business; we want to give the young start-up entrepreneurs an opportunity to meet by potential investors who they’d ordinarily not have access to, and most importantly, we want to give women an opportunity to articulate their challenges and discuss the roles they can play in developing Africa. At the end of the day, I hope we can get policy makers to formulate policies that would make it easier to attract investment into Africa.