View From an African Son: Female African Entrepreneurs Need More Backing

Female traders in ZambiaGuest post, part of The NextWomen Africa Theme, by Davison Mudzingwa, founder of Entrepreneurship Africa.

My mother is a genius; I always tell people who care to listen. She inspires me in many ways. Having grown in rural Africa in the 20th century, she was not educated. Her father, my grandfather, preferred educating the boy child rather than the girl, my mother. It’s a norm that is still prevalent in many African societies. Boys get preference, from young age up to old boys clubs. 

Being a single parent for the better part of her adult life, my mother managed to raise three children and many more in the extended family. She has treaded in countries I have never been to and traded in almost every basic commodity. She is aging but definitely not slowing down. “It doesn’t feel right to just sit,” she always says. 

Without an education and unfit for success in societal expectations, she has a house in her name, a small truck that works for her and a thriving flea market she jokingly refers to as a mega supermarket. 

Having grown up and travelled elsewhere in Africa, I have realised that my mother represents a lot of resilient women in the continent. An agglomeration of informal businesses that is a common sight in most African countries is usually populated by women. It has been documented in various research undertakings that the informal business and small business sectors are biggest employers in Africa. 

Women resiliently keep up in these survivalist ventures largely because it’s a matter of life. However, one can not disregard the ingenuity, risk-taking and growth orientation these women entrepreneurs have. Speaking to various women entrepreneurs, one gets a sense of a people that, if duly supported, need a graduation to the upper rung of big time entrepreneurship. Men currently run most mega projects in Africa. 

Some argue that in entrepreneurship, one has to prove one's mettle and not wait on favours to be successful. That’s true; a spoiled entrepreneur crumbles faster than his/her ascendance.

However it is fact that entrepreneurs require a favourable environment and support systems such as good policies, a stable political environment, access to finance and markets. 

With a historical education imbalance, are women getting enough support to break into sectors such as mining, commercial agriculture, manufacturing and the corporate world? The answer is NO. Women are not aggressive and lack knack for risk taking as compared to men, some say. Well, from my own interaction with women entrepreneurs, this is a fallacy. Women run families and their informal, survivalist ventures with an equal measure of risk taking. They travel to places they have never been to, where languages they can’t even pronounce a single syllable of are spoken. They do this trading. What greater risk taking surpasses that? 

In Zimbabwe, there is a growing trend of women who have explored markets in Dubai and China. Most of them are uneducated dream pursuers. 

Another immediate example is the hordes of female informal cross-border traders. The Zimbabwe-South African border is usually populated with women with hefty bags. So are the borders that separate Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia. This is just Southern Africa. The United Nations Development Fund for Women in 2010 found that between 70-80 percent of the cross border traders were women. The volume of goods traded by women is staggering. Some resort to lying through customs procedures to avoid paying duty that eats into their profits. This is because the governments are not supporting them. A common market would solve this problem and help elevate women to better trading. 

In South Africa and Zimbabwe, and also in as many Africa countries, women are a rare find in higher offices of corporate companies. It has been established in various researches such as that of Globe Women that women, despite holding similar qualification as male colleagues, are paid lower and have fewer opportunities of promotion. This clearly demonstrates that the problem permeates the corporate world and affects even the educated women. 

Corporate entrepreneurship, because of availability of resources and security, offers better opportunities to innovate, but sadly women are largely only present in these glassy offices as Personal Assistants or tokenistic non executive directors. Breaking the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’ is imperative for the progress of women. 

When you educate a woman, you educate a nation is a common aphorism in Africa. This is so because of the caring nature of women.

You pay a woman; primary to her mind is feeding the family. A man’s priority is personal gratification.

A Bangladesh model by Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank works perfectly for women in Africa. Financial institutions that disregard inhibitive and bureaucratic requirements such as collateral should be done away with. Women, from the Grameen Bank case study, have proved to be a worthy investment in entrepreneurship. 

For many years now, women have tried making up for lack of finance by organising themselves, pool funds together in savings clubs well run with fiduciary rules in place.  These clubs have proved women’s hunger for success and recognition. I know of few such grassroots savings initiatives run by men. 

The question I would ask any government or financial institution would be what would a woman fail to achieve in big time entrepreneurial ventures if she is adequately supported with finance, incubation and skilled advisers? 

Davison Mudzingwa, Founder, Entrepreneurship AfricaEntrepreneurship is not as mystical as women are meant to believe. It’s time women are glorified for their role in running African economies through the informal sector and afforded opportunities to run bigger businesses. African governments should mainstream the informal businesses; a majority of them run by women and channel back the billions of dollars circulating in the sector back into the fiscus. 

Davison Mudzingwa is a storyteller and entrepreneur. He tells stories through film, oral and written word. Entrepreneurially, he has presided over two failed start-ups and various still born ad hoc initiatives. H e has learnt that proper planning is vital. Davison is the founder of
. His vision is of a vibrant entrepreneurial Africa.

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