What do the internet and Senegal have in common? They have both been reinvigorated by Awa Caba, a young and energetic entrepreneur hailing from Dakar, Senegal. Caba, a Mandela Washington Fellow at the University of Iowa, is committed to connecting business women in Senegal with the internet in order to grow their selling power and influence.


Giving a voice to rural women

Caba studied engineering and computer science at Ecole Superieure Polytechnique. After receiving her degree, she started her own business. Caba says, “I wanted to give rural women access to the marketplace. Right now, they have no visibility except for the international fair that takes place in Senegal once a year. This is their only chance to access a sizeable market and it is not enough to keep their businesses afloat.”

“Knowing this, I decided to build an e-commerce platform to bring women producers closer to consumers. These women do not have internet and can’t comprehend the opportunity that the internet can bring them and their business. They are distrustful of technology and yet it is a way to enable themselves and gain power. I serve as the link between these women and the internet. I have to communicate the benefits of the internet, like worldwide visibility and market power, to them and persuade them to get connected.”

Innovating around the clock

Caba has big dreams for improving the lives of business women in her country, which she backs up with relentless energy and dedication. She works full time on her company, with the help of two full-time employees and two part-time employees. Each Monday, her team meets to review what’s going on in the business. She also meets with partners of her business in order to gain more clients and secure funding. Somehow, she finds the time to talk with potential clients, too.

Her business is called Sooretul, which means “It’s not so far” in a local language. As Caba puts it, “My company wants women to know that it’s not so far between them and the marketplace, it’s just the internet that they need to use to get there and be successful business women.”

When Caba isn’t busy with Sooretul, she works on other organizations. “I co-founded a tech hub for women in science, called Jjiguene Tech Hub. Jjiguene means women, so the foundation of this organization is helping women embrace technology and science.” Caba’s role with this organization includes scheduling training for girls and women and serving as a role model for the females there who would like to start a business.

“Then I also work with another organization that promotes young Senegalese people in agriculture, called Yeesal AgriHub. Yeesal means innovation, so this organization is centrally rooted in agricultural innovation. Yeesal is based in Thiés, Senegal, which is 70 kilometers away from my hometown of Dakar. I travel to Thiés twice a month in order to work on the project and build a community. We are building an innovative application to help farmers manage their work.”

Coming to Iowa

Caba has brought this innovative mindset to America for the Mandela Washington Fellowship, which is her second visit to the United States. “When I was at university, I was selected to participate in the 2011 Imagine Cup hosted in New York by Microsoft. After the trip to the States, I visited the US Embassy in Senegal frequently, as they wanted to build a community with the people who had participated in trips to the States. It was the Embassy that told me about the Mandela Washington Fellowship in 2012.”

“At the time, I was not ready to apply. I was just starting a business, just finishing my degree, and I had a lot of things to do. I decided I would get two years of experience working at my business, and then I would apply. And I did, although it was a challenge.” Caba says that when she first learned that she was a candidate for the program, Senegal had over 1,050 applicants. “That list was narrowed down to 50 and then 30, so I feel lucky to be here.”

Caba’s gratitude motivates her to take all that she can from the program lessons, which she says “are very practical. The lessons are paired with encouragement to practice our pitches. I meet people on the street and they want to hear what I’m working on and who I am, so I always have to be ready to give my elevator pitch!”

The instructors have also made an impact on Caba and her plans for her business. “All of the instructors are here and ready to help you. They give you tools to manage your business, know your customers, and know your value proposition. I can reach out and touch a point of weakness in my business and someone is there to teach me how to move past that weakness.”

The Mandela Washington Program experience in Iowa, Caba says, is very different from the experience she had in New York.

“I feel like I can make a difference here. In New York, it was so busy and loud. But Iowa is so green, healthy, and calm. I feel at home here due to the people’s hospitality. It reminds me of my country. Senegal is known as the country of hospitality, so I feel at home in Iowa.”

“Before I came here, no one in Senegal knew about Iowa. After traveling to Iowa, I can bring back my experiences and tell them that it’s nice!”

As Caba looks forward to her return to Senegal, she is filled with hope. After networking with the other Fellows, she believes she can implement her projects in other countries in Africa, too. “The UI Fellows come from 18 countries, and as I meet with the Fellows and learn about their countries, I see that I can implement my business anywhere. I came to the United States, but I am discovering new countries in Africa, too.”