African Women Entrepreneurs Driving African Economies

One of the first things that struck me when I arrived in Lagos, in April 2014, to join the Tony Elumelu Foundation, was the number of women in senior positions and on the Boards of the publicly listed companies in the Heirs Holdings Group: United Capital, Avon Health, Avon Medical, Afriland are all run by women. The Boards of UBA has several women as non-executive directors. While in the UK we were still debating getting more women on boards and in leadership positions in the FTSE 100 companies, Heirs Holdings Group, a Nigerian investment company was leading by example.

Globally, it is a fact that advancing women’s equality could add $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025, and we know that when a woman does well, her family eventually does well. Initiatives, such as the 30% Club launched in the UK to ensure FTSE 100 companies have at least 30% women on executive management boards to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in Circles that started in the USA and have spread globally, aim to foster communities where women fulfil their full potential. African women constitute 70 percent of the informal economy and one third of Africa’s formal small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are owned by women.

A World Bank report from as far back as 2008 entitled ‘Women in Africa – Doing Business’ noted that the rate of female entrepreneurship is higher in Africa than in any other region in the world. Right across the continent the spirit of entrepreneurship is evident: of all private enterprises in Ghana, 44% are led by women and on the other side of the continent in Rwanda the figure stands at 41%. Whilst many of these enterprises might be described as small family-run affairs, it does not stop them from pointing to a female population that is keen and willing to work and pertinently, is already playing a significant role in their respective countries’ economies. The challenges that are faced by African women entrepreneurs are largely no different from their male counterparts: affordable and reliable energy sources, better infrastructure, intra-continental trade agreements and improved ITC provision, the wish-list of requirements remains the same. However, African women entrepreneurs also face bigger challenges than men across the continent in starting or expanding their businesses. For example, even though over 80% of the Nigerian farming workforce are women, less than 5% of landowners are women.

In many countries, African women are barred from inheriting property – a key element of wealth transfer- which means women are disproportionally excluded in wealth distribution and redistribution. Access to finance is another major issue for women entrepreneurs as financial institutions, creditors, clients, and suppliers are less willing to lend to women business owners. There is also a lack of investor confidence in women entrepreneurs on the continent where investors would rather invest in men, than women. Many initiatives led by foreign development institutions were in the past restricted to men, but this is changing as more research shows that investments in women lead to more impact in economic development. In my role as the CEO of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, I have encountered and interacted with many dynamic African women entrepreneurs. Through the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme, we are equipping African men and women entrepreneurs with the critical skills they need to be successful in business; design great products and services; implement fast, cost effective marketing strategies; build effective management teams and to scale a business; leverage the power of technology for business development and growth; access to networks of business professionals and mentors; and likeminded entrepreneurs from across 54 African countries. For myself and all the team at TEF, we are committed to ensuring that by 2017, of the 1000 applications selected for the programme, the ratio of male and female entrepreneurs will be 50% each.

In 2015, our first year of the programme, 26% of the selected TEF Entrepreneurs were female and in 2016 the proportion had risen to 36%. We know there are more African women entrepreneurs who could and should benefit from this programme. Over the past two years we have observed that women come to the application portal in same numbers as men but fail to complete and submit the application. In 2016, we monitored and saw where the applicants got stuck, provided guidance through webinars and FAQ’s to facilitate the process. To raise awareness amongst African women we developed and implemented innovative marketing, communication, and PR strategies, capitalising on social media, press coverage and our extensive network of relationships. We used the role models and success stories from the 2015 Tony Elumelu women business owners to encourage women to engage, apply, complete and submit their applications. This focussed and targeted communication, resulted in 36% applying and 32% being selected. At the Foundation, we believe Africa’s women entrepreneurs are a powerful untapped force and through these concerted efforts, we hope to inspire and motivate more women to take the critical step to bring their ideas to fruition and become part of Africa’s fastest growing network of African entrepreneurs. I’d like to share with you some of the dynamic African women who applied to the programme and are now running successful businesses from across Africa. They are visible across sectors with their business successes upending established theories that they cannot thrive in certain industries. One such entrepreneur is Oduwa Agboneni of Neni’s Autocare. The automobile industry is not an area that one would typically associate a female, but Oduwa who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Masters in Geo-Informatics Technology saw a gap in the auto-care market and decided to fill it.  She did not see her gender as a hindrance to entering a male dominated industry, perhaps choosing to live by her own personal mantra and I quote: ‘Whatever you do, do it with consciousness that something great will come out of it.”

Indeed, much has, apart from a successful business and an inspiring story, she gave a barnstorming address at the recently concluded TEF Entrepreneurship Forum where she spoke to her challenges and how she has overcome them. On numerous occasions, TEF founder Tony Elumelu, has spoken of how imperative it is that African solutions are found for African problems. One female entrepreneur who has created a business that responds directly to this call is Annie Wambita, CEO of International Centre for Minimal Access Surgery (ICMAS), based in Kenya. Healthcare and healthcare tourism is oftentimes an enormous financial drain on African resources. With thousands of Africans seeking medical treatment in countries such as India, the UK, USA and even Israel and UAE, Ms. Wambita’s centre focuses on laparoscopic surgery; which is predominantly used for gynaecological and exploratory procedures. As well as offering the attendant services she is also a staunch advocate of healthcare awareness, running trainings as well as workshops educating women about conditions that are prevalent among African women such as fibroids and endometriosis. Healthcare solutions such as Wambita’s ICMAS are of increasing importance if the next generation of Africans are to be healthier and thus more productive members of the workforce. Another entrepreneur who has created a solution rooted in the everyday realities of women in rural communities and urban slums is Nkem Okocha of Mamamoni Ltd. Access and full participation in financial services remains small across Africa. And whilst most Africans working in the formal employment sector in urban locations have bank accounts, the numbers tail off considerably in rural communities and urban slum areas. Nkem’s social enterprise provides low interest loans to women in these communities. Coupled with the money, recipients receive training to kick-start their enterprise and financial planning and education. It is all part of Nkem’s drive to engage as large a sector as possible in the formal economy. Nkem’s work has been applauded on a national level in Nigeria with a visit to the Presidential Villa in Abuja and an audience with President Buhari of Nigeria. It is my fundamental belief that women like these entrepreneurs will drive the transformation of this extraordinary continent. Looking forward to the 3rd Round of the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme in 2017, I am encouraged that we will not only achieve our goal of 50% female entrepreneurs, but also through our various ancillary activities, we will improve the enabling environment exponentially.

We are building an integrated TEF Hub – the “Go to Online Platform” in Africa for research, strategic discussions, value chain partnerships, funding, and peer to peer engagement. The elephant in the room is the isolated entrepreneur and with this platform we are creating the most dynamic and engaged entrepreneurship community in the world. In addition to the networking opportunities afforded by it to members, we have also created specific materials that reflect the wants and needs of the African growing business. The 2000 Alumni of the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurs are already benefiting from this platform. Furthermore, several partnerships that TEF has forged will significantly benefit female entrepreneurs. Our recently signed MOU with the Nigerian Ministry for Information and Culture to create an enabling environment for the Creative Industries will assist those in the Fashion Industry which is 67% female. Our founder also showed his support of ITC SheTrades, a mobile and internet application that provides women entrepreneurs across the world with a means to connect to markets. Access to additional investment beyond the seed capital provided by TEF is also an aspect we continue to seek solutions for as we improve the enabling environment. However, in this instance, the odds of securing further capital are stacked in the favour of women if a recent article in Forbes is to believed: venture capital firm First Seed Capital in a research paper in 2015 noted that companies with a female founder performed 63% better than those they invested in that had all male founding teams. One of the questions, I am often asked is the composition of the entrepreneurs. Do certain countries have an innate ‘entrepreneurial gene’ and can their successes be replicated elsewhere? Currently, Nigeria is our most ‘entrepreneurial’ in terms of numbers, but we have many women from other countries, especially Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana as well. Countries that we have yet to have female entrepreneurs are Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Egypt, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia. TEF will continue to employ strategies to engage all women across the continent as we are committed to democratising luck. Research that offers tangible solutions and policy recommendations is at the heart of TEF’s activities. Following on from our report analysing the Agriculture Sector we are conducting in-depth research focussed on solutions to the unique challenges facing women entrepreneurs in Africa. I welcome international multilateral and donor agencies committed to improving the enabling environment for African women entrepreneurs to join with us in the production of this research, leveraging our unique data base of over 100,000 African entrepreneurs from 54 African countries.

The central question we are seeking to answer are the specific conditions that predicate enduring success so we can replicate them across the continent. As well as contributing to the canon of evidence based research in this area, we will continue to evangelise, lobby and share our findings to ensure conditions for female entrepreneurs improve. I remain ever confident that African female entrepreneurs will continue to grow in number and strength. Women in Africa and globally have mastered the juggle: gliding between the roles of work and home. Being CEOs one minute, and wives, mothers, and daughters the next. At TEF we believe that wealth creation is the key to many of the social ills we see in Africa. Tapping half the workforce is simply not enough to solve the many challenges and to harness the many opportunities in Africa. In our inter-connected world, the female voice and skills cannot be ignored or marginalised, hence our commitment to promoting both male and female entrepreneurs. But let there be no mistake, female entrepreneurs in Africa are a force to be reckoned with and the architects of some of the most promising businesses in the region. The 2017 cycle for the TEF Entrepreneurship Programme will open on the 1st Jan 2017 via our website. I encourage African Women Entrepreneurs to apply. Parminder Vir OBE CEO, Tony Elumelu Foundation

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