African women build businesses

Across sub-Saharan Africa, ambitious women are unleashing their potential by starting businesses.


Across sub-Saharan Africa, ambitious women are unleashing their potential by starting businesses. Tanzeel Akhtar talks to successful female entrepreneurs from Nigeria and South Africa to find out about their achievements and discover what motivates them.

 Female entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa is rising rapidly, with a number of ambitious women defying the odds, going solo and unleashing their potential. 

In an increasingly interconnected world, the rise in technology-based businesses is playing a crucial role in narrowing the gender gap and pushing female entrepreneurship forward.

As national economies face stiff competition for specialist market skills and resources, a number of startups are drawing international interest. 

There are also a number of global initiatives supporting and propelling female-run businesses on the continent.

Speaking in March at a dinner held by SheMeansBusiness, an initiative designed to empower female entrepreneurs across Nigeria, Facebook’s policy programmes head in Africa, Sherry Dzinoreva, said that the company would be intensifying its female entrepreneurship training.

But despite the launch of such initiatives there are still a number of challenges women need to overcome.

Across Africa, women are prevented from pursuing a career in business through overt and hidden discriminatory practices.

In sub-Saharan Africa, at least 40% of the labour force is female, according to the Pew Research Centre.

However, 74% of women’s non-agricultural employment is informal, in contrast with 61% for men.

In the private sector, African women hold 23% of positions at executive committee level and just 5% of CEO-level jobs, according to McKinsey.

Access to capital and exclusion from male dominated business networks constrain women’s participation in business. 

Arduous journey

Blessing Ijoma is a 27-year-old business developer and the co-founder of Rucove, an agriculture and e-commerce business based in Aba, Nigeria.

Ijoma was admitted to the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which was launched by then US President Barack Obama in 2010 to invest in the next generation of African leaders.

The initiative provided her with enterprise training and helped her to meet like-minded entrepreneurs. 

She then went on to build Rucove, which connects buyers and suppliers, importers and exporters of agro produce.

The Rucove platform aims to empower African farmers and push agricultural suppliers to be more productive. 

Her journey has been long and arduous. Ijoma describes the difficulties she faced accessing the internet in public cafés as she grew up. 

“While running errands I spotted an internet café and went in to inquire how I can learn to operate a computer.

I was fascinated when I saw many computers. We weren’t taught about computers in school. So, I started saving for my training,” explains Ijoma. 

She then applied to the Michael Okpara University to study computer science and was accepted.

When she started her computer training programme, she continued to go to an internet café, but it was often visited by police on the lookout for scam artists.

Her parents warned her to stay away from the café, but Ijoma persisted.

“[Police checks and harassment] continued until I finished my training and learned major programming languages, design skills online and started a freelance career.

“I was able to save enough from my freelance business to buy a laptop, internet broadband and started freelancing from home at the age of 19,” explains Ijoma.

She applied for initiatives to support her passions. “[When] our school went on strike, I made use of that opportunity to apply for YALI and got admitted into their one-month entrepreneurship training,” says Ijoma.

Former US President Obama launched YALI in 2010 to support young African leaders as they spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Unique platform

After YALI, she expanded her one-woman web design business into a team offering other services such as lead generation.

“I scaled my freelance business to a freelance network, partnered with Stripe and won the 2016 Entrepreneurs’ Organisation (EO) Global Student Entrepreneur Award with N1m [$2,768] financial support.

“I received an MBA scholarship from Mr Lere Baale at Business School Netherlands.

“I was mentored by Mr Vincent Brown Molokwu, the President of EO Lagos as of then,” says Ijoma.

She then went on to build Rucove, which enables agro suppliers to sell their produce ahead of harvest on blockchain

How is this platform unique?

“Produce that is weeks away from harvest is more likely to attract buyers and less likely to go to waste or end up as surplus when put up.

“Basically, it gives suppliers enough time to get buyers, thereby saving the larger part of storage costs,” explains Ijoma.

As an African woman entrepreneur based in Nigeria, Ijoma can face problems. For example, she says, angel investors or judges may “seem to flow with you” during your pitch session, but once you mention your location, some seem “not so into” the project anymore. 

“Many bigger companies you’d like to partner with either say ‘no’ or have tons of terms your startup can’t meet. The main obstacle is our location,” says Ijoma. 

Reshaping the industry

Matsi Modise is the 34-year-old founder and CEO of Furaha Afrika Holdings.

Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, it is a holdings company with subsidiaries that include Furaha Solutions and Furaha Enterprise Development. 

Modise is a well-known local female entrepreneur who is aiming to reshape the enterprise development industry one startup at a time.

Furaha Solutions specialises in recruitment, skills development and HR technologies and was seeded by Workforce Holdings, a company that is listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE).

Furaha is dedicated to creating opportunities for meaningful growth in Africa by investing in human resources.

“Growing the company to what it is today has come with its challenges and has not been an easy journey,” says Modise.

She stresses that this is not primarily because she is female, but because transforming the economy in South Africa to a point where it is equitable for all who live in it is a slow process. 

Modise says that “luck was on her side” when she gained the attention and the trust of an established company like Workforce Holdings:

“It was a typical case of David and Goliath, where I had to fight and assert myself against a big and established company and clearly illustrate [Furaha’s] value-add so that no one could take [Furaha] for granted.”

Modise comments on the challenges she faces as a young, female business owner, competing for the same market as older, established white-male-owned businesses in South Africa. 

“These businesses have the lion’s share of the market, more experience, networks and very deep pockets, which makes it very hard for a young black female to enter and gain traction in the HR industry,” she says.

In the face of these challenges, Modise says that when she wakes up every morning she reminds herself who she is, what she has accomplished and why it is important to push and persevere. 

Modise is passionate about the growth of entrepreneurship in Africa. She has spent years at the helm of entrepreneurship industry associations, such as the South African startup support organisation SiMODiSA, which lobbies the public and private sectors to invest in and create an enabling environment for entrepreneurship to thrive. 

A major issue that they have advocated for is the co-investment of the private and public sectors in early stage capital to help high-impact entrepreneurs to grow. “There is a huge funding gap,” she says.

Women who dare to dream

Modise describes herself as an optimist. She believes that, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it and enjoying the fruits of the harvest. 

“Africa needs more women who are bold enough to build businesses. Women who dare to dream and defy the odds.

“Women who challenge the status quo and create their own corporate ladders.

“The coming centuries, will tell stories of how women built multinational companies that emanated from Africa and that will stand the test of time,” says Modise.

Many female entrepreneurs in parts of Africa still struggle to obtain access to credit or even computers but despite this many are persevering and pushing to become entrepreneurs. 

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