felicite_yameogo_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

DORAL — As CEO of Karikis International, Félicité Yameogo has several customers in the U.S. and Caribbean who are eager to buy the shea butter soaps, creams, and cosmetics her company manufactures.

But there’s one problem: Customers have to travel to New York City to buy the items directly from Yameogo when she visits the U.S.

That’s because Yameogo’s company and production line is based in Burkina Faso, a West African country just north of Ghana, where she lives and works.

Shipping the items to customers individually is too costly and the risk of not receiving payment is too high, Yameogo told the South Florida Times. “I had no representation here and you lose money that way,” she said.

Yameogo has found the solution in the African Trade Development Center at the Miami Free Zone, 2305 N.W. 107th Ave., in the western Miami-Dade suburb of Doral.

The Foundation for Democracy in Africa opened the center in March to serve as a bilateral commercial hub involving Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean. Its origins are rooted in the African Growth and Opportunity Act which was signed into federal trade law in 2000 with the goal of enhancing free market exchange with African nations.

Without the center, it is typically difficult for African merchants such as Yameogo to gain consumers in the Western Hemisphere, according to Anthony Okonmah, executive director of the Foundation for Democracy in Africa.

“The excuse is that Africa is very far away,” said Okonmah, who runs the center. “We want to bring African products closer to the U.S. consumer.”

With Miami serving as a gateway to markets in the Americas and the Caribbean, the center is currently helping 10 small- to mid-sized merchants based in those regions and in Africa.

“We’re growing it gradually,” Okonmah said. “We’re evaluating the products to find their right end-users.”

Through the center, these merchants can import and export their products across continents and find target markets and consumers. An African merchant looking, for example, to sell the raw cocoa extract his company produces may find a candy manufacturer in Brazil willing to buy his product and use it to make chocolate bars.

“The center can make the distributions for a flat fee,” said Yameogo, and this is a huge cost-saving to any budding entrepreneur in Africa.

Besides soaps, creams, and cosmetics, Yameogo’s company also makes artisan bracelets and scarves which, Okonmah said, would appeal to buyers in Central America and South America.

Buying and selling these products creates a trade relationship based on the principle of sustainability, he said.

A consumer would know “If I buy this, I’m helping people,” Okonmah said. “Five dollars may not be anything to you but, over there, the economies of scale are different.”

Similarly, the center also helps suppliers based in the Americas and the Caribbean export goods such as toothpaste, tooth brushes, dishes, tissue paper and electric shavers to African merchants.

Okonmah said these bilateral exchanges not only create strong business relationships but also jobs in his native Africa, a continent with soaring population and poverty rates.

“If you cannot create jobs for them, there is the tendency they’ll fall into crime as a way to survive,” said Okonmah, who was born and raised in Nigeria. “They have too much talent that’s wasted because the leadership isn’t there.”

One of the center’s goals is to help African entrepreneurs “use technology to improve the quality of the products they produce,” Okonmah said.

Another goal involves helping more African women such as Yameogo to become entrepreneurs in male-dominated African countries where they are typically marginalized.

“Women play a critical role in any economy,” Okonmah said. “It’s a benefit to incorporate their know-how into business.”

As a business woman, Yameogo said, overcoming these cultural challenges was “not easy” but she never gave up.

“They think that you’re crazy and want to compete with the men,” she said. “You have to be persistent and focus on your business.”

Okonmah moved to Chicago, Ill., in 1969 to pursue his college studies. Ten years later, he relocated to Miami, where he worked as a research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry. After retiring in 1994, he launched the Foundation for Democracy in Africa.

 “After retiring, I thought let me go do something for Africa,” he said.

For more information on the African Trade Development Center, call the Foundation for Democracy in Africa at 305-416-9201 or visit democracy-africa.org

Photo: Félicité Yameogo