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Sarah Whitten,
Regional Manager of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency

“Addressing gender equity and equality is a top foreign policy priority of the Biden-Harris Administration”

While significant strides have been made in advancing women’s economic opportunities in Mauritius, deeply entrenched cultural norms continue to contribute to the persistent gender gap, Sarah Whitten observed. In a Q&A with BIZWEEK, the Regional Manager of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) talks about the urgent need to mitigate climate change, through sustainable infrastructure projects, in an environment where the instrumental participation and the contribution of women should be acknowledged through more robust frameworks.  

You recently represented the U.S. Trade & Development Agency (USTDA) at a one-day forum in Mauritius. Could you provide more information about the USTDA and your role as regional manager?

The U.S. Trade and Development Agency, or USTDA, is the U.S. government’s project preparation agency. USTDA’s mandate supports sustainable infrastructure projects in emerging and developing markets, whilst linking U.S. businesses to export opportunities. Our grant funding is provided for the earlier stages in a project’s life cycle, prior to financial close, when technical and design decisions are being made. The tools we have at our disposal include feasibility studies, technical assistance and pilot projects, as well as partnership-building activities such as reverse trade missions and workshops.

I work with USTDA’s partners in sub-Saharan Africa to support financial close for their projects. My role is to increase the likelihood of our projects getting financed. As such, structuring them in a way that increases the project’s bankability is a key consideration. As a team, we assess the bankability of a transaction from the time USTDA receives a request for project preparation support, through to when the detailed feasibility study report is completed. With an increased focus on financing and implementation, we aim to increase the percentage of our projects that reach financial close and successfully obtain the necessary funding. In 2022 alone, USTDA-funded projects in sub-Saharan Africa received over $500 million of financing.

I regularly engage with financiers to understand their project-specific risk concerns, with the goal of ensuring that USTDA’s studies consider the most appropriate structures to address these concerns. Some of these financing structures include the use of innovative blended finance solutions, risk mitigation tools such as political risk insurance and credit guarantees, and cost-effective funding from export credit agencies and development finance institutions to mobilize private sector financing.

USTDA has partnerships with many regional multinational financial institutions that have a depth of expertise and insight regarding local market financing dynamics. This allows us to identify the most appropriate tool (for example, a pilot project or a front-end engineering and design study) for the investors and the project developer. USTDA-funded studies include a financial task which includes financial modelling for the project, as well as engagement with external financial institutions to assess appetite to fund the project.

The forum’s main theme was ‘Women in Green Technologies: Empowering Women to Lead Sustainability Initiatives.’ Can you share the main messages from your keynote address with our readers?

Multiple research papers, from McKinsey to Harvard Business Review, have statistically shown that firms with more women in senior positions are more profitable and more socially responsible. Yet, we continue to see a significant gender disparity at the highest levels of organizations, particularly in certain sectors such as STEM and financial services, which have been traditionally male-dominated. While women operate more than 40% of Africa’s small and medium enterprises, female-led start-ups only received 4% of total start-up funding in 2022, and this is a disparity that needs to be addressed urgently.

Addressing gender equity and equality is a top foreign policy priority of the Biden-Harris Administration, and a key pillar under the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment. As such, multiple U.S. government agencies, including USTDA, are taking concrete steps towards improving these metrics. At USTDA, women’s voices are heard at each step of the project development process, both internally and externally. Both our agency director and deputy director are women, as well as our sub-Saharan Africa regional director. Externally, last year, women-owned businesses won 21% of all USTDA contracts in terms of value. USTDA also supports leading women-owned project developers such as minigrid company Sosai Renewable Energies Company Limited, providing critical infrastructure solutions to underserved communities in the energy sector.

In his speech at the opening of the forum, the U.S. Ambassador to Mauritius and Seychelles, Henry Jardine, emphasized the importance of energy efficiency and the development and adoption of green technologies in the face of climate change. What is your perspective on this issue?

Green technologies are critical across all areas of combatting climate change, from mitigation to adaptation. There is increased urgency in achieving the Paris Agreement targets to limit global warming to 1.5-degrees Celsius, and one of the ways to best achieve this target at scale is by implementing green technologies. This is also an area of strength for U.S. corporates, including sub-sectors such as battery storage solutions and electric vehicles, to name a few. Other adaptation measures, such as water meterage solutions, are also areas of strength for U.S. corporates. There are a lot of innovative technologies in this sector, and a key component of USTDA’s mandate is to connect cutting-edge U.S. technologies to infrastructure needs across the continent, including in Mauritius. As a recent example, in South Africa, we have funded technical assistance to explore the use of innovative artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies within South Africa’s transmission grid, which can transform power delivery to millions of South Africans. The goal of the assistance is to increase the transmission grid’s capacity to absorb new, renewable sources of energy generation, and reduce the frequency of power cuts across the country.

It is widely believed that women are underrepresented in the green technology sector. What are your thoughts on this matter?

There are multiple societal and institutional reasons why women are underrepresented in traditionally male-dominated industries, including in the green technology sector. This starts in early education, with a need to increase the pipeline of STEM-educated female students, through to hiring, promotional policies, and support of mid-to senior-level women in the workplace. The pipeline of women in STEM drops off at higher education, and once women make it into a career in STEM, they are often faced with biases, whether unconscious or otherwise, as well as challenges experienced from the lack of women in leadership serving as mentors and sponsors for younger women. For the women in this sector that venture out on their own, financing is a challenge, where women-owned businesses receive a disproportionately lower percentage of financing than male-owned businesses.

The Ambassador raised the question of what policy and regulatory reforms are necessary to create a more supportive commercial environment for women entrepreneurs in this sector. What are your insights on this topic?

As a global average, women have just three-quarters of the legal rights afforded to men, and thus, the ability to close the gender divide is significantly hindered without the necessary regulations and policies in place. Disparities in regulations around land ownership rights, inheritance rights, safety of women, and women’s ability to travel create barriers for women to attend schools and maintain careers. From a regional perspective, Mauritius stands out as a leader in supporting women’s economic activity from a policy and regulatory perspective. According to a 2022 World Bank report studying existing legal frameworks and how they support working women, Mauritius scored the highest in the Sub-Saharan Africa region, indicating a critical step from the public sector in supporting increased gender parity. However, despite a favorable enabling environment, Mauritius ranked 115 out of 153 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index (GGI) of the World Economic Forum, which assessed gender equality across 1) economic participation and opportunity; 2) educational attainment; 3) health and survival; and 4) political empowerment. Significant progress in advancing women’s economic opportunities has taken place over recent years. However, entrenched cultural norms have maintained the gender gap, demonstrated in areas such as limited (20%) female participation in parliament, and the disproportionately high percentage of women spending time on unpaid care and domestic work. USTDA is focused on creating a supportive commercial environment for female entrepreneurs. An example of a female-led project, referred to our organization by the Africa Investment Forum’s deal rooms, is a female-led telemedicine company, Mobihealth, founded by Dr. Funmi Adewara in 2017. Mobihealth has developed an integrated telemedicine and electronic medical records (“EMR”) platform that allows underserved populations in the region access to top-tier medical services remotely. USTDA’s study helps inform Mobihealth’s potential investments, and expansion of its solution beyond Nigeria, into new markets.

The U.S.-Africa Climate Innovation Week is scheduled for this year. Can you provide a preview of the event, specifically highlighting the innovative technologies and services that will be presented?

We are excited about the U.S.-Africa Climate Innovation week, which USTDA funded to familiarize leaders from across Africa with innovative U.S. climate resilience and adaptation solutions. Before the end of the calendar year, we will host two parallel reverse trade missions to the United States, which will span five business days. The first reverse trade mission will begin in Washington D.C. and visit up to two U.S. cities. It will introduce delegates to U.S. technologies and services in integrated water resources management, including improved water efficiency and sustainability in water infrastructure and storage. The second reverse trade mission will be on the topic of early warning and emergency management systems to improve the region’s flood, earthquake, and storm monitoring and forecasting capabilities. More information will be released publicly in due course.


The USTDA team has a variety of upcoming events focused on our priority sectors, so please stay tuned for announcements through our website and social media platforms. For regional events, in addition to the U.S.-Africa Climate Innovation week, we are looking forward to the second instalment of our Infrastructure Finance Event Series. The first conference, held in collaboration with Rand Merchant Bank, was on the topic of U.S.-Africa Financial Inclusion, and was held in Cape Town in July of this year. The next instalment in the series will be focused on Green and Sustainable Financing, and is expected to take place in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, early next year.

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