Women supporting women: Insights from a woman-owned business investing in African agriculture
As we get ready to kick off our Expanding Horizons workshop series for American small businesses next month, we’ve been featuring several of our successful small business partners. Here, we look at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Aventura Investment Partners, which was co-founded by Dawn Hines.
When Hines first visited Africa, she noticed that many women were working for nonprofits but there were fewer investing in, or running the businesses. At the same time, she understood that investment was critical to economic growth in places like Senegal, where poverty was widespread among the country’s smallholder farmers. Hines went on to form Aventura Investment Partners, which invests in agricultural equipment and other value chain services to help small farmers in Senegal increase yields and earn more income. Here, she talks about her experiences as a female entrepreneur in West Africa.
You had a background in venture capital and investment banking in 2010 when you took steps to forming Aventura. What was your motivation?
Through my work in venture capital, I worked with entrepreneurs, and I really enjoyed that. I was planning to stay in that industry but when I traveled to visit a business school friend in Senegal, I saw a whole other world out there and I realized how much of a need there was in West Africa for early stage investments and services for small farmers. I realized that investing in food value chain services for smallholder farmers was key to addressing poverty in rural West Africa ... and that there had been very little investment in that sector. I became very passionate about the idea that, by investing in value chain services to support agriculture, we could increase employment and incomes in these rural areas.
What led you to believe that small businesses could play an important role in the global economy?
I strongly believe in business as the way forward in the development of a country. In a country like Senegal, there are hundreds and hundreds of not for profits. They do important work, but in places where there are a large number of nonprofits and few businesses, you can have a bit of a skewed economy. Businesses are very effective at creating jobs, which is one of the best ways to promote economic growth.
Can you talk about the women who have benefited from Aventura?
Women manage 56% of rice production in Senegal and in general they have smaller plots than the men. Aventura offers plowing and harvesting services on a per-hectare basis, providing these women with financially viable access to machinery services that increase yields and improve paddy rice quality.
In our mango processing plant in rural Senegal, the majority of the more than 500 employees are women. For many of these women, it is the first formal employment opportunity they have ever had.
What advice would you offer other American startups exploring emerging markets?
I would say use technology as much as possible, and since so much business will be transacted in cash, put in place strict financial and operational controls. I’d also recommend to find a trusted partner. Talk to people who know the environment and get their advice. Understand you may encounter a lot of hurdles, but if you can get a foothold, there is huge potential, and often, very little competition.
How has Aventura benefited from its partnership with OPIC?
The value of this partnership has been huge. It has given us a lot of exposure and it creates confidence in the investment community as we seek to raise additional financing.
Describe the current business environment in Senegal. What is the unique contribution American businesses can make?
Senegal is a relatively good place to do business. It has good telecommunications infrastructure and has made a lot of improvements in roads and other physical infrastructure. American businesses are often recognized for expertise in technology, and that is very attractive. And I think American business people are seen as being pragmatic, hardworking and evenhanded.