As the continent becomes increasingly connected to other parts of the world, and better connected to other African nations, there is an astonishing rise in entrepreneurship. Even better, there has been an increase in woman-owned businesses, increasing employment opportunities and boosting the economy. In South Africa, it is estimated that SMES will contribute 90% to the economy’s growth due to their labour-intensive nature.
Of course, it has not been an easy journey, and there have been great challenges for Africa’s female entrepreneurs. Consider the outright abuse of women and their treatment as second class citizens. In many countries, girl children do not get the opportunity to complete their education, often obtaining a very basic education before being drawn back into the home to complete the work of adults. Across the African region, in 47 of the 54 countries girls have a less than 50% chance of completing primary school. There are enduring social constructs that dictate as to what is proper work for women, which is nearly always menial, unpaid and unrewarding. The horrors of child marriage only make it harder for young women to forge their own paths: more than half of the girls in Mali, Mozambique, the DRC, Chad and Niger are married before age 18. In these same countries, more than 75 percent of people live on less than $2 a day. Child brides often die in childbirth (girls under 15 are 5 times more likely to die), contract HIV from their much older partners and are often victims of domestic abuse.
But throughout history, and even more so now, women have and are continuously escaping the traps and chains set for them.
As women in Africa we have so many industries we can get involved in, and it is especially gratifying to see them overcoming these challenges with intelligence, compassion and innovation. Many of these female entrepreneurs have built social engagement into their business models, giving back more than they take. It comes back to the great phrase, ‘when you get to the top, send the elevator down for someone else’. It is even better than many of these women forged their way into industries and fields typically dominated by men.
It may have taken her a little under 15 years, but Divine Ndhlukula built a security empire from a tiny cottage with just four employees into Zimbabwe’s second largest security company. She provides bespoke guarding services, cash-in-transit solutions and technologically-driven security solutions and employs 3 400 employees: 900 of them are women. Her company, SECURICO, has won the prestigious Legatum Africa Award for Entrepreneurship, plus more than 20 other industry awards, and generates $13 million (R159m) in revenue. In her Forbes interview, she offers excellent advice for young female entrepreneurs: “Have a game plan and execute it with passion, determination and focus. Never mind that you are a woman. Do not think about that except as a competitive advantage. No one is going to give you anything on a silver platter. You have to work twice, thrice, five times as hard and do not lose focus.”
Looking at local successes, Khanyi Dhlomo started her career as SABC 1’s first black newscaster. Now she is currently the managing director of Ndalo Media (co-founded with Media24), which publishes Destiny and Destiny Man. She also owns destinyconnect.com, a website dedicated to helping people connect for business, as well as encouraging entrepreneurship. She is also the independent non-executive director at THE FOSCHINI GROUP LTD, and has been acknowledged by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global leader. She was named most influential woman in South African Media by The Media Magazine in 2003 and made the 2011 Forbes list of 20 Young Power Women in Africa. She is currently the owner of Luminance, the high-end fashion outlet. When interviewed by Mail and Guardian shortly after the opening of Luminance, she said: "I think that if we want true equality, it's not about just allowing people to enter an industry. It's also about allowing people who have been able to get ahead in other industries and maybe want to grow into other industries to be able to do that, and that's how we'll get equality and true levelling of the playing field."
The realm of chartered flights has also benefited from the rise of South African women. SRS Aviation, owned by Sibongile Sambo, is South Africa’s first and only black-woman owned airborne services business. From her childhood, she loved being on aeroplanes, and talking with pilots about flying. She turned this passion and love into a thriving business. With five degrees to her name (and soon a sixth: a Masters of Science Degree in Management of Technology and Innovation in Aviation), she offers as many opportunities possible to black women to enter aviation through bursaries, scholarships and mentorship. She is currently paying for 10 black pilots to get their flying licences. Her list of accomplishments includes BWA’s Regional Business Women of the Year, the BIBA (Black Woman in Business Awards), Impumelelo Top Female Entrepreneur, and the 2008 BMF (Black Management Forum) Presidential Award in the Category of Youth Business Leadership. In an interview with Suzanne Stevens, she said: "As women in Africa we have so many industries we can get involved in, embrace them, however, we must not forget our responsibilities at home."
Enabling others to get to where they need to be is as noble a calling as any. Winifred Selby is a Ghanaian woman who saw the value of bamboo, and used it to make affordable, hardy bicycles, starting her business aged just 15. Now she is 20 years old, and Ghana Bamboo Bikes employs more than 40 people, creating a turnover of $320 000 (R3.9 million) in 2014. In an interview with DW, she speaks about her family’s poverty, and how in summer vacations they would sell their personal items in order to pay school fees. It inspired her to create something that is made fairly with no harm to the environment or to the people that make the product. The bikes are made to endure the high terrain and rough roads, can carry heavy loads, and because they are only one piece, it cuts down on the number of parts that need replacing. To save money, Selby grows her own bamboo, which occurs naturally in Ghana. The women she employs have little or no education, but are paid double the minimum daily wage. The bikes also retail in the USA at a premium price of $300 (R3 600), with a waiting list of over 4 000 bikes. For every bike sold in the USA, Bikes for Africa assists Afrocentric Bamboo in subsiding a bike for school child or farmer. In every way, Afrocentric Bamboo encompasses the best of business, and sets a sublime example for the entire world to follow.
It’s not over for Africa: Africa’s women are uplifting the continent with business savvy, kindness and determination. There’s more than just sad stories and Boko Haram; it’s the meteoric rise of our women that shall change the global perception of Africa.