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For a long time, women have been underestimated and underutilized in many societies, including across Africa. Now, through hard work, global commitments, and localized training initiatives, women entrepreneurs are making their mark on the economies of southern Africa.

Africa has come a long way in terms of bridging the gender gap. But it isn’t over as yet. There is still a great deal of work to be done especially political representation and economic opportunity. Supporting women entrepreneurs can help promote gender parity and spur economic growth.

2021 International Women’s day, women have a lot to celebrate. Rwanda ranked among the Top 10 Global Gender Gap Report 2020 of the World Economic Forum (WEF). Within the same index, Ethiopia ranked among the top five most improved countries and has a woman president, Sahle-Work Zewde. Overall, Sub-Saharan Africa has closed its gender gap by 68 per cent since the last edition of the report. The gender gap in political empowerment in the region remains large. Only Ethiopia, Rwanda and South Africa have more than 48% female ministers.

The World Bank states that sub-Saharan Africa also has the highest rate of entrepreneurship worldwide, and this is the only region where the majority of entrepreneurs are women. In spite of this most female-owned businesses remain stuck at the micro level, unable to grow due to a number of factors. Profiting from Parity: Unlocking the Potential of Women’s Businesses in Africa 2019 concluded that barriers blocking growth and profitability include social norms, networks and strategic business decisions. In the context of the fourth industrial revolution, it is also alarming to note that the technological gap between women and men is widening, further crippling the growth potential of women entrepreneurs.

Anne Shongwe, UN Women Representative says, “Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path toward gender equality, poverty eradication, and inclusive economic growth.” 

The challenges of female-led businesses

For over a year, COVID-19 has held the world captive. Schools closed, shops shuttered, and living rooms were transformed into home offices. However, the impact of the crisis was not felt evenly by all, with women bearing the brunt of the economic and social fallout. The virus constitutes a threat to women’s rights and gender equality globally. The pandemic has further widened the gender employment gap and dealt a heavy blow to the future of female economic empowerment in the region.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has interrupted those plans of many female entrepreneurs, as many governments – including those in Africa – have introduced travel restrictions, full or partial lockdowns, and border closures to curb the spread of the virus. These measures, while necessary to save lives, have adversely affected countless livelihoods and enterprises, putting the very survival of many small and growing businesses at risk.

On another end, women-led businesses themselves had an opportunity to take key steps internally to navigate these turbulent times and they did nothing but grab it with both hands. They reassessed their business models and repositioned themselves to take advantage of opportunities created by the pandemic. For instance, many creative female entrepreneurs have been able to re-purpose their assets to provide needed products or services, e.g.: manufacturing personal protective equipment, leasing trucks to companies providing essential food or cargo delivery, and leveraging technology to introduce new product offerings or delivery channels online.

Why support female entrepreneurs?

Government and development institutions can promote women’s entrepreneurship as this will change Africa by encouraging gender empowerment, sustainable development and increase political participation. Women in Africa are more likely than men to choose entrepreneurship, not because they have a fiery ambition or expertise, but because of a lack of better prospects.

It’s a missed opportunity. If you consider that Africa is now a global leader in female business owners, you can see that unlocking their potential can make a significant contribution to the continent’s development and prosperity. If we can level the playing field for female-owned businesses, if we can help them grow, African economies will grow. Empowering women entrepreneurs is simply smart economics.

How to support female entrepreneurs?

The De Beers Group, for example, initiated a program last year in collaboration with UN Women to develop the livelihoods of women micro-entrepreneurs in the diamond-producing countries of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. The program called AWOME (Accelerating Women-Owned Micro-Enterprises) incorporates a capacity-building initiative that administers training for female micro-entrepreneurs and in such manner, equip them with business management skills to build their abilities to enable them to grow their businesses.

One of the many reasons for the success of this program is its ability to be tailored to each of the regions in which it operates in. Local individuals are trained to teach business acumen to female micro-entrepreneurs through initiates such as workshops, courses and on-going mentorships. Localized, supportive work like this goes a long way in complementing national efforts to create jobs and empowering women across the region.

Though gender equality is not yet a day-to-day practice, programs such as AWOME represent crucial steps forward. They embody the vitally necessary and constructive ethical, social and economic shifts in attitudes that need to be sustained in order to ensure sustainable impact.

The impact of COVID-19 will be long-lasting. Nevertheless, with the right internal measures – and external support in terms of capital and assistance from governments and financiers – many female owned businesses will be able to weather these challenges and continue to be a driving force for the long-term growth of the continent and their country’s economies at large. Whether it’s governmental bodies, world organization’s or businesses in the private sector, there is a revolution in which everybody has responsibility.

KSN Associates is a company that helps businesses grow; that propels entrepreneurs and their dreams into the real. We strongly believe in the potential of women, all across the world and we would like them to know that they are not alone in their struggles and challenges. The team consisting of strong and hard-working women, is concerned and conscious of its responsibility to help however and whenever they can. This is what we do; KSN Associates team identifies issues or potential weaknesses, provides assistance, guidance and support in any aspect of a business ensuring their success on the long run; if you’re a woman, harboring a dream to start your own business, seek out the support and advice you need, we will welcome you with open arms.

By Caitlyn Sivalingam

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