By Pamina Mullins
While writing inspirational stories of Africa’s female entrepreneurs, I notice a fascinating theme emerging. Though the stories of these courageous and talented women are as diverse as their areas of expertise, they are all masters of leveraging their natural feminine qualities to help their business thrive. Instead of denying or suppressing them, these women have learned to capitalize on the innate qualities of what many refer to as “the weaker sex”. This is despite that they regularly have had to carve out a niche in an unsupportive and even hostile environment, where culturally conditioned gender discrimination is rife.
Extending their innate nurturing qualities and advocacy skills from their immediate family into the community – “lifting as they climb” – is a characteristic I regularly see in the women entrepreneurs I interview. I’ve covered a diverse number of industries – power protection, waste management, security services, architecture, renewable energy, management coaching, micro-financing, fashion, technology, and more – but the driving force behind the women-led businesses is a common one: empowerment of communities.
And I get it. My entire professional life as a coach and author has been built around the desire to nurture, develop and empower others to achieve their dreams, especially Africa’s disempowered. Women so often are not seeking reward when they build businesses, but because of what drives them – the need to make a difference – they end up being very successful at what they do. This in turn has a knock-on effect for their own families as well as the communities where they operate and live and the economy more broadly.
Every day, I am amazed by these womens’ acheivements.
Charmaine Hassen arrived in Botswana to start a new life and business as a divorced, cash strapped, single parent, and credits advocating for her eldest daughter born with Down’s syndrome (in a country where even the term was unknown) with teaching her self-reliance and determination. This served her well while building her start-up in an entirely male-dominated and technical business environment. In addition, she and many others used their feminine team-building skills to recruit and train their corporate staff almost as a family from scratch. Ugandan Lucy Athieno used an embarrassing incident at school to fuel her business dream – manufacturing re-usable, eco-friendly and affordable menstrual kits that can be washed, dried and reused for up to 12 months. Zimbabwean, Roselyn Charehwa is motivated by educating communities about environmentally friendly ways to discard waste, creating a safe environment to live in, while empowering women and youths with jobs. Nigerian Vivian Maduekeh’s food and health advisory business offers consulting services that foster community health and fellow citizen Dr Bunmi Oyinsan is building a chain of affordable private schools for Nigeria’s poor. South African Janine Roberts launched a co-packing firm that that acts as a bridge between corporate clients and micro-entrepreneurs, empowering the latter to become businesses in their own right. While not far away also in Cape Town, Leànne Viviers launched an online jobsite in a drive to reduce youth unemployment, connecting an incredible pool of young and untapped talent with companies who couldn’t previously access such resources.
In a world where emotional intelligence and the ability to empower others are increasingly sought after for those in leadership roles, women often excel. Tanzania’s Devotha Minzi told me she decided to start a micro-financing firm that would support fellow entrepreneurs who were less fortunate than her. Her secure, well-paid job made her feel like a traitor because she wasn’t having a meaningful impact on her society so she took the start-up plunge despite stiff opposition from friends and family. Mozambican career and life coach Marta Madeira says her primary motivating force has always been to challenge herself while helping others to reach their full potential. She’s driven by a need support people in her community break out of the cycle of poverty and the limiting beliefs that hold them back.
A desire to be authentic often drives these entrepreneurs to take massive leaps of faith from a familiar comfort zone to an unknown future. Kenyan coffee entrepreneur Vava Angwenyi turned her back on a career in finance to grow a once struggling social enterprise that aims to empower and benefit local communities. Zimbabwean travel business owner Bongani Huni says she felt like a hypocrite because her company tagline is, “live your dream!” yet for years she was crippled by fear of not having enough financial security to be a full-time entrepreneur running her business on the side of her teaching career. Ghanaian Ruka Sanusi explains how leaving a successful career with a notable global corporation to pursue a personal aspiration was a major step for her. Her brightest moment was having the courage to take that first step when she couldn’t see the entire staircase.
These are situations many of us are familiar with, but remember that like those who have gone before you, you already have the qualities that are needed. And the journey ahead will develop them, along with your confidence and skill set.
Some of these entrepreneurs were born to parents who placed a heavy emphasis on education, like Judith Bakirya – whose father often told her and her sisters their education was their inheritance – or were greatly influenced by their families and early experiences like Helen Njoroge whose fear of poverty drove her down the startup road. Rachael Aprill Phillips saw her mother absorb the shame and reduction of status from African celebrity to cleaner and care-home worker in England, and this fanned the embers of her latent entrepreneurial spirit.
For many, their entrepreneurial journey was born of necessity but then grew into a passion. Roselyn Charehwa admits she never considered herself an entrepreneur. These qualities only became apparent when she was backed into a corner, with no job and no one to turn to. Once she’d jumped into the shark tank, it was survive or be eaten. The same for Zambian Norma Simpson and Malawian Grace Maalo Chalera whose husbands died, leaving them the responsibility to support the family.
You know how universally women love to connect and talk? Well, it turns out it’s a very valuable attribute! Many of these women stressed how important networking is in building a start-up. Resilience, the humility to learn and acquire new skills, and the ability to make the most of meager resources are also common feminine traits that lend themselves well to the often Herculean task of getting a start-up off the ground.
Charmaine Hassen sums it up well. “You know, for me failure was simply never an option”, while Rachael Aprill Phillips leaves us with this advice “Find a way to capitalize on your gifts and passions; then do whatever it takes”.
Pamina Mullins is based in Zimbabwe. Learn about her Career and Life Coaching business, Break Free and Reclaim Your Life.