Entrepreneur out of necessity: Women in Africa

By Njideka Harry

Aishat designs and makes shoes. Charity makes clothes and embellishes fabrics. Doren owns a flourishing purified water sachet delivery business.

Despite these and many other inspiring women entrepreneurs we work with in Nigeria, there are clear obstacles to reaching this point of success for many women. Typically, we know there are distinct differences in how men and women are treated as entrepreneurs in many African countries – practices that are frequently damaging to women trying to start and grow a successful business.

(TOP: Aishat displays he shoes designed and made from her shop).

That’s why our organization – the Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) – is so passionate about supporting women entrepreneurs. We know that creating a society that encourages and makes it easy to start and grow a business requires more than just money and a good idea. It requires a network of interlocking institutions, policies and cultural attitudes collectively known as the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

This year, we doubled down on our work supporting a thriving ecosystem of women entrepreneurs, especially in African countries. We held a two-day workshop in Lagos, Nigeria, to train a group of our women entrepreneurs and give them access to experts and advice from companies like Mastercard.

This event was a microcosm of our ongoing work training women entrepreneurs. We’re proud of the women we’ve helped, but know there’s a long way to go for gender equality in African countries.

So why is this work so critical?

Setting the Stage: Why an African Woman Starts Her Own Business

In many African countries, like Nigeria and even Kenya, entrepreneurship is fueled by necessity. Nigeria’s economy in particular has been struggling due to lower revenue from the oil industry and lack of economic diversity. As the economy weakened, unemployment escalated.

Aishat is one of the women we work with. For the last 7 years, she has owned Aeesha Collections in Lagos, where she designs shoes, manufactures her products with materials like rubber and leather, and sells them in a brick and mortar showroom.

I asked her what she thought some factors were that influenced women’s decisions to become entrepreneurs in Nigeria. Her comment really gives a glimpse into core motivations for women entrepreneurs, transcending geography: “One of the reasons is because every woman wants to be on her own. No woman wants to be a liability and it’s inspiring when you see a young woman like me doing well for herself in her business, you will want or feel like doing your own thing. Also, doing a salaried job and getting a good pay is tasking in this country. You can’t have a full possession of your time and be making good money while doing a salary job. Everyone, including women, want their time to themselves.”

Through Aishat, we see that even if women are lucky enough to secure employment, they see entrepreneurship as an alternative to standing in line waiting for a paycheck and as a way to take control of their own destiny.

Necessity due to unemployment may be the original spark, but the women we work with are all fueled by fierce resilience. Resilience in the face of an economic recession in Nigeria, and resilience with the odds stacked against females in the business world.

The most talked-about businesses run by women are arguably similar to those run by Aishat and Charity – a business that manufactures fashion or home goods. But we are proud that our service model supports any women, in any sector, with any business.

Take Doren, who owns Ofalflow. She processes and supplies purified water sachets to the local universities, shops and market traders in Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom state. Doren had a passion for science and a vision for her business from a young age, representing a group of women who become entrepreneurs not necessarily out of necessity but out of a dream. Now, she recognizes that ambition alone does not guarantee success. She explained, “If you don’t know how to interpret your dreams, your goals, then you don’t have anything. You could have a dream but you also need the capacity to interpret it, to become visible.”

Digging into Data: Barriers and Solutions

Mastercard recently released the Index of Women Entrepreneurs, created as part of Mastercard’s “ongoing efforts to better understand and track women’s progress and achievements in the business world.” The index collects a wealth of information about economies across the globe, with data representing a majority of the world’s female labor force.

Digging into countries where YTF has an active presence investing in women entrepreneurs, we noticed the data from Uganda (where we conduct some work) is closely reflected in our deep experience working in the Nigerian culture and economy. For instance, many things the index highlighted for Uganda – availability of capital, a bank setting with female marketers and lenders, and an environment that’s not enabling for women entrepreneurs – are all common in Nigeria as well.

The report notes, “Ugandans are opportunity seekers and risk takers,” which is the same in Nigeria, except fewer people want to take risks on women entrepreneurs. Most notably, banks are often unwilling to provide loans to women in Nigeria wanting to start a business. Rejection of loan applications in Nigeria occurs 250% more often in firms whose top management is female (rejected 56 percent of the time) than male (rejected only 16 percent of the time).

Aishat backed up this finding when she shared with me the numerous times she had been denied a loan from Bank of Industry. She learned from others that it is impossible to get a loan as a woman unless you know someone or have other inside connections.

Charity, the fabric and clothing manufacturer mentioned at the beginning of this piece, faces a set of issues common to entrepreneurs. Her first round of set-backs was easily remedied by joining forces with YTF. Starting out, she had struggled with business and financial management, but her training with YTF taught her how to save more, keep accurate financial records, and also become more practical in her business. However, she is still plagued by an inadequate power supply, an increase in material costs, and insufficient machines. The current economy in Nigeria has not allowed her purchase more machines to make her products faster and neater, but she still hopes for a better future.

Now, building from our existing work with women entrepreneurs and leveraging wisdom from our partners, we’re beginning to widen our reach after assessing the sectors in which women are becoming entrepreneurs. Up until now, our Nigerian Women Entrepreneurs and Mobile Value Added Services program has focused on women in retail, hospitality, and light manufacturing.

In reviewing the female ownership rates of all sectors in each state and in recognizing growth potential in new industries, YTF will extend our program to any women entrepreneur or any micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) owner in any sector in YTF’s targeted states. Although the rate of female sole ownership in small and medium-sized industries increased by 67.5 percent between 2010 and 2013, females lost their presence in main industries (except for education and wholesale/retail) due to many more men gaining positions in employment or beginning businesses.

Just as we’re helping women invest in themselves and in their communities, we are grateful that companies like Mastercard invest in big issues in practical ways. Our International Women’s Day event was one piece of the puzzle to help women thrive in creating their own businesses, tackling economic and cultural barriers head-on. Having Mastercard employees present to directly share insights with entrepreneurs truly helps spur on our work and our entrepreneurs’ path to success.

(Njideka Harry is President & CEO, Youth for Technology Foundation – YTF).

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