|Women in Business in Africa: Making headway|
|Written by Yeukai Mlambo (1) Monday, 03 October 2011 08:10|
Worldwide, women’s presence in business as owners continues to grow. At least one-third of businesses in the formal sector are now owned and operated by women.(2) African women’s impact in the business sector cannot be ignored.(3) Gender stereotypes perpetuated by society imply that women are incapable of establishing and operating businesses, but such ideas are being challenged by the significant evidence of women’s capabilities in business. This paper explores women’s presence in business in Africa and the challenges they face. Recommendations are presented on how to ensure that women’s presence in business continues to grow.
The status of women in business in Africa
Extensive research has been conducted on women in business throughout the African continent.(4) The impetus for such research stems from policy makers’ realisation that women are an untapped source of economic growth.(5) It appears then that women are an unrecognised entity of the continent’s economic growth. In East Africa, women represent 48% of Kenyan entrepreneurs in the small and medium enterprises sector.(6) Women in Tunisia (North Africa) are creating business opportunities for themselves and own about 55% of businesses in the country.(7) In Nigeria (West Africa) women are the owners of about 20-30% of registered businesses.(8) Mozambican women are said to be active participants in the country’s economic growth, but remain under-valued and unrecognised for their contributions.(9) Research undertaken in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia found that one-third of medium to small enterprise operators were women.(10) In Ghana, women own almost 45% of all micro and small enterprise businesses and contribute up to 46% of the country’s agricultural GDP.(11) In Benin, Chad, Kenya and Mali, women’s participation in the informal sector accounts for over 50% of GDP.(12) Throughout the African continent women are present in business. However, this presence is largely in the informal sector, for a number of reasons.
Women in the informal sector
Most African business women establish and operate businesses as a way to provide for their families (13) and not necessarily to make profit. Research indicates that some women entrepreneurs have successfully expanded their businesses beyond the micro/informal sector. Such women are often referred to as exceptions to the norm.(14) Interviews with prominent business women on the continent indicate that, while circumstances and the need for income are the driving force behind many women entrepreneurs, it is also true that they have a keen interest in establishing businesses for themselves. The advantages of setting up a business include greater financial independence, increased self-confidence and gaining respect in one’s own right.(15)
Women’s participation in the business sector is driven by survival and the need to take care of one’s household and an additional desire for financial independence. However, despite their participation and contribution to the economies of their individual countries and the continent as a whole, women entrepreneurs face many challenges and obstacles in their endeavours to establish and operate their businesses.
Challenges to women in business in Africa
Some of the challenges women encounter in business include discrimination, difficulties accessing funding, and balancing work and family lives.(16) Many Africans continue to believe that women are incapable of operating a business.(17) Research indicates that the status of women in ‘traditional’ societies, where the culture of patriarchy leaves women dependent on males for financial survival and the women’s families often discourage female independence, prevent women from pursuing business interests.(18) In these societies, economic circumstances (the need for women to provide for families) therefore thwart old-fashioned ideals of men as sole breadwinners who venture outside the home. Conservative values perpetuate the stereotype that business is a male occupation and create hostile conditions for many (aspiring) business women. Stereotypes biased toward males in business feed and reflect the fact that most financial decision makers are men. Whilst accessing funds is a challenge for both men and women in business,(19) stereotypes about women in business may lead investors to make biased decisions against female business owners.(20)
Furthermore, about 55% of African women are located and reside in rural areas.(21) Due to social systems wherein women, their value and their skills are transferred to their husband’s family when they get married, rural families with limited resources spend little on girl children’s education.(22) As a result, many women lack the necessary technical knowledge on processes and effective ways of bidding for funds, such as putting together convincing proposals.(23) Research indicates that women entrepreneurs often use their personal savings, arrange for short-term loans from friends and family, or solicit the services of informal lending schemes in order to fund their businesses.(24) Most women are not sole owners of land or property, as these are owned by the males in their families, but this has not stopped them from conducting business. Sometimes women even use their homes as a place of work.(25)
Another challenge that women entrepreneurs face is balancing work and family life. As most women are still expected to bear family and other domestic responsibilities, participating in the business sector outside the home can be a challenge.(26) In the different countries where research has been undertaken, such as Mozambique, Zambia, Tunisia, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, women indicated that the challenge of balancing work and family life affects women more than it does men.(27) Women often experience feelings of guilt when they have to choose between their family and work demands.(28) In order to deal with this challenge, female business owners are forced to delegate work tasks and divide their time appropriately, usually at the expense of their business and therefore, overall business output.(29)
The current reality of women entrepreneurs in Africa
Policy makers and researchers’ increased interest in business women has revealed and raised awareness about the different challenges women in business experience in Africa and around the world. However, findings from research in Ethiopia revealed that policies meant to ensure equity between women and men in business actually contribute to discrimination against women because policies often disregard the extra responsibilities women have.(30) Women in this study argued that policies are based on male business actors, taking into account the male context and male needs alone.(31) Until societal attitudes are transformed, women in business will continue to be under-valued and experience challenges related to social expectations of women.
However, despite the challenges women face, women in Africa are a visible feature in the business sector throughout the continent.(32) While the majority of business women are present in the micro and informal sector, a significant number of African women have managed to grow their businesses beyond the micro level, with some reaching or intending to expand to international markets.(33) Although the business environment can be hostile to women, we must acknowledge that African women have made great strides. It is even argued that women are at a greater advantage than their male counterparts when it comes to managing employees and that many women view their gender as a positive factor, not an impediment.(34)
Research about women entrepreneurs in Africa has tended to present women as minor players in the business sector who are victims of poverty and patriarchy, rendered incapable of operating or expanding their businesses beyond the informal sector.(35) While these findings may be true to some extent, we must also highlight that there are women entrepreneurs who are already displaying their competencies and are making great strides in the business sector.(36) There is a need for current and relevant research that documents different realities from what has already been recorded. New evidence of women in business on the continent who are thriving in business will assist in changing perceptions and challenge stereotypes that discourage women from participating in the business sector.
Recommendations and concluding remarks
In order for the African continent to become more competitive and dynamic, women entrepreneurs need to be supported.(37) Women themselves have been proactive, establishing women’s organisations, for example the Business Women’s Association (BWA) (38) in South Africa and the Ghana Association of Women Entrepreneurs (GAWE) in Ghana, as avenues of support for dealing with the different barriers they face as women in business.(39) There remains a need for support from at national, regional and continental levels for policies that ensure women and their needs are taken into account. Financial institutions need to ensure that women’s requests for finances and loans are evaluated in a manner that makes it easier for them to access finances. For example, financial institutions can provide women with technical support on how to compile proposals and project plans that will assist them with acquiring funding. Governments could also encourage investors to invest in female-owned and -operated businesses.
Acknowledging those who have succeeded will serve as an inspiration for other women. However, policy makers must remain aware of the challenges women in business experience and address them accordingly. Empowering women entrepreneurs means tapping into a rich source of greater economic growth, something no country can afford to neglect.
(1) Contact Yeukai Mlambo through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit (