Women Power the Private Sector:
7 Women-led Businesses Driving Economic Growth in Africa
By: Leah Ngari
Did you know that the largest share of female-owned businesses worldwide is found in Uganda, Ghana, and Botswana? In fact, despite the numerous barriers that businesswomen in Africa face, Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where the majority of entrepreneurs are women. Indeed, as the saying goes – necessity is the mother of all inventions. Women will get creative to find ways to feed and care for their families, and so today, most women in the region start businesses out of necessity.
Traditionally, women who got their start trading small quantities of goods and rose to prosperity through the fabric trade and traditional market place were affectionately nicknamed “Mama Benz,” after the Mercedes-Benz cars, they could purchase with their profits. Today, the high number of women-owned businesses showcases African women’s capacity to create their own opportunities. While many of these businesses remain a one-person operation, some individuals have turned their idea or product into a successful business and scaled it on a regional or global level.
The following women embody the diversity of female entrepreneurship on the continent:
1. Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu – Ethiopia
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu founded SoleRebels with the goal of building Ethiopia’s first global shoe brand. Born and raised in the Zenabwork area, an impoverished community in Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa, Bethlehem quit her accountant job at the age of thirty to found a shoe manufacturing company that went from providing jobs to members of her community to whose annual revenue now exceeds USD 200 million a year.
The company has made more than just a positive economic impact. SoleRebels is also mindful of the environment and creates eco-friendly shoes by using recycled car tires to make the soles and laces as well as local fabrics. Since its inception in 2005, SoleRebels has expanded internationally and now operates physical stores across various countries such as the USA, Germany, Singapore, and Greece. The shoes are hand-crafted to order in Addis Ababa by local artisans using traditional fabric and shoemaking methods. Through SoleRebels, Alemu inspires other entrepreneurs in developing countries to dream big and tap into local talent and resources to benefit the larger society.
2. Joy Ndungutse and Janet Nkubana – Rwanda
These sisters co-founded Gahaya Links, a handicraft company that creates home decor pieces and jewelry. Founded in 1994, this crafts company partnered with local women weavers in Rwanda to create hand-made crafts – such as Rwanda’s special ‘peace basket’, the national symbol of peace. Gahaya Links has empowered over 5,000 women in 52 cooperatives across Rwanda. They have partnered with brands like Walmart, Macy’s, and Kate Spade, exporting their products outside of Rwanda to a larger international market. Ndungutse and Nkubana’s success demonstrates the power of working together as a community for a common goal.
3. Mariam Lawani – Nigeria
With the growing economy, numerous industrial advancements, and rapid urbanization, waste management has become asignificant environmental issue requiring attention in Africa. Mariam Lawani, founder of Greenhill Recycling, has set out to solve the problem of waste management and poverty, beginning with the densely populated areas in Nigeria. Greenhill Recycling gives households an opportunity to receive “Green points” for their recyclable materials, which can then be traded in for items such as school supplies, groceries, or utility bill payment. Greenhill picks up the recyclables directly from participants’ homes, processes the recyclable materials, and sells them to manufacturers to be used as raw material input for the manufacture of new products, such as polyester fiber and floor carpets.
Greenhill Recycling empowers locals to take part in protecting their environment while providing access to the necessary products and services. And Lawani is already planning her next step – tackling Africa’s infrastructure deficit by transforming plastic waste into roads.
4. Odunayo Eweniyi – Nigeria
Odunayo Eweniyi tapped into her passion for technology to create tools that have helped over 200,000 users save money and manage their finances. Eweniyi created PiggyBank (later renamed PiggyVest). The app provides a safe platform for people to save up, putting in as much or as little funds as they can to work towards their desired savings. It also allows low and mid-income people to invest in different sectors, thus creating a saving and investment culture for those who would otherwise not have access to such opportunities due to limited knowledge and wealth. Odunayo gives hope to women who, like her, would like to venture into STEM-related fields which are still highly dominated by men.
5. Laurettah Sibanda – South Africa
The building and construction sector in Southern Africa hosts the founder of Atlantis Construction Group & Developments. After founding businesses in gold mining and media, before finally settling on construction. The full-service building and contracting company constructs both residential and commercial projects, and currently operates in Botswana and South Africa. Sibanda plans to expand to Zambia and Zimbabwe.
6. Michelle Adelman – Botswana
Michelle Adelman built a business to solve Africa’s food security problems. Accite is a project development and impact investment firm that funds technology-led, sustainable commercial agriculture projects that spur economic diversification and employment of youth and women. Their first solution, Go Fresh!, uses greenhouse and hydroponics technology to grow vegetables all year round – a significant accomplishment in Botswana, home to the Kalahari Desert.
Accite has created employment opportunities for Botswana’s youth, with local youth leaders running the various projectscurrently in place including Fodder Green (high-quality animal feed), Crossover Meats (affordable and eco-friendly beef alternatives) and Infinite Foods (a market platform for plant-based foods). Her startup shows the economic potential in building business models based on solving social problems in Sub-Saharan Africa.
7. Brenda Katwesigye – Uganda
With a background in IT and an interest in entrepreneurship, Brenda Katwesigye tried several business ideas before settling on Wazi Vision. Her drive to bring quality healthcare to everyone led to the creation of Wazi Vision, a startup that provides affordable eye care solutions.
The company uses a mobile application and a virtual reality (VR) kit to help those living far from an optometrist diagnose vision defects. Wazi Vision also provides an eye care solution, manufacturing eyeglasses made from recycled materials – which slashes the production cost by over 20%.
Investing in African women
Africa has made impressive progress in closing the gender gap on the continent, but there is still much room for improvement. Despite the high rates of female entrepreneurship, capital investments in male-owned firms are often up to six times greater than capital investments in female-owned companies.
One way to economically empower women is to fund female-owned businesses. Governments can also put in place policies that promote female entrepreneurship to increase women’s access to capital and networks that will enable them to realize their entrepreneurial aspirations. Public education programs can also encourage women to dream big – unfortunately, women themselves often do not believe their business is worthy of outside investment, and so they self-select themselves out of the credit market all too often by not applying for loans.
Economically empowered women lift up their surroundings: women will reinvest up to 90% of their income in the education, health, and nutrition of their family and community (compared with up to 40% for men). Supporting African businesswomen can transform Africa.