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Women agripreneurs gaining traction in Africa

Dossier: Women agribusinesses

Despite numerous obstacles, women entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly visible on the African continent as they take their businesses to scale

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Scaling up

The potential of an increasing number of African women agripreneurs is now being recognised despite the myriad challenges they face in expanding their agribusinesses.

Women in Africa are more inclined than in any other region worldwide to embrace entrepreneurship, including in the agricultural sector, as stated in the World Bank report Profiting from Parity, published in March 2019 (see Women entrepreneurs should be considered as drivers of a country's growth” and Identifying obstacles and unlocking potential). “In Africa, 58% of women have an entrepreneurial drive and mindset,” stated Leesa Shrader, director of Mercy Corps' AgriFin Accelerate Program at the recent African Green Revolution Forum held in Accra, Ghana. “But, due to gender inequality, their profits are 34% lower than those gained by men,” she added, citing the World Bank report. While there are more women entrepreneurs in Africa than elsewhere, they still face countless barriers to the growth of their businesses. The problem of scaling women-led enterprises arises at all levels of the value chain, including production, processing, marketing and agricultural services.

Despite numerous obstacles, women entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly visible on the African continent as they take their businesses to scale

Despite numerous obstacles, women entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly visible on the African continent as they take their businesses to scale

© CTA

The 5th Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF) held in Cape Town, South Africa (29-30 October 2019) focuses on the challenges and successes of women agripreneurs in Africa. AWIEF is a key partner in the implementation of CTA’s Value4Her initiative, which aims to create – by 2020 – a network of women entrepreneurs in agriculture who are able to galvanise supply chains and pool their resources, agricultural experience and expertise to be able to access markets efficiently and cheaply. Talash Huijbers, the 24-year-old founder of InsectPro, which produces insects for livestock feed, agrees that networks and looking out for other partners have been essential in building and maximising her business.

Multiple impediments

“Women tend to start at a very small scale because little capital is required to run a small business,” states Jemimah Njuki, senior program specialist at IDRC in Kenya. “But when they want to expand, they encounter new barriers: they need to own land, obtain a bank loan, know the quality standards (i.e. for export), or deal with men’s negative attitudes toward women who want to get out of the family home and offer their services.”

“Women’s lack of time and access to capital is a real challenge,” agrees Christabell Makkha, director of strategy and learning for the AgriFin Accelerate Program. “Agriculture is a very labour-intensive profession, while women entrepreneurs generally have less time to devote to it because of their household tasks and family obligations, especially caring for their children.” Makkha goes on to highlight further challenges faced by these women such as social norms whereby men are assumed to be the household breadwinners; the difficulty of accessing land and resources (loans granted to women are generally smaller than those of men); the risk of gender-based violence; and, unequal access to training, etc.

Old habits die hard, states Huijbers: “I had the dual handicap of being a woman and young, so I was accompanied by a man in my first encounters with local officials and banks. But everyone was well aware that I would ultimately be the decision-maker.” However, she emphasises to others that it’s important to “Dream big but start small” and that she is only now establishing firm foundations for scaling up her business.

Women entrepreneurs face more barriers than men

The World Bank Profiting from Parity report also highlights that women-owned businesses generally have fewer employees than those run by men. Gender inequality starts within the household, and it is harder for women to mobilise complementary labour on farms. Facilitating worker recruitment is therefore key in enabling women entrepreneurs to move from a self-sustaining to an open economic activity. The report further points out that although women entrepreneurs have access to production-enhancing elements (knowledge, fertilisers, labour, etc.), productivity inequality persists due to other insidious underlying factors. Advice offered to farmers, for instance, is often male oriented. While girls now have greater access to school, gender disparities in access to secondary school education, and especially to entrepreneurship training, continue to seriously undermine the development of women-owned businesses.

But the situation is changing. Women entrepreneurs are increasingly visible on the African continent, as illustrated by the fact that 11 of the 22 start-up finalists in the latest CTA Pitch AgriHack competition were women. Moreover, five of the nine finalists in the mature business category – those seeking funding to sustain their business and enable it to grow – were women. In the early-stage category, the Ghanaian start-up Profish, was awarded a €7,500 grant for its Lojaanor IT platform devoted to fish and shellfish. “With this USSD platform, we can provide logistics services while offering fishers market access, even in the most remote areas,” says Profish co-founder Caroline Pomeyie. Fishers simply have to call a phone number and report their stocks. “We have developed this easy solution because most users just own a standard phone and their farms are often located in remote areas without internet access,” she continues. It is a simple operation for fishers without any special technological skills to make phone calls to place orders, draw up inventories and invoices via this highly comprehensive service platform.

As a further example of the development of women entrepreneurship in Africa, Tswana Bonolo Monthe was a co-winner in this year’s GoGettaz Agripreneur Prize competition organised by Econet Global and Yara International. This Botswanan woman entrepreneur co-founded Mungo Craft, which specialises in marmalades, jams and chutneys made with local fruit (see Bottling the flavours of Botswana). “Our goal is to contribute to Botswana's economy by growing our business, creating jobs and reducing unemployment in our country,” she said at the award ceremony.

Initiatives on four fronts

Whether it be agricultural production, processing or services, “Going from selling surplus produce to a real commercial business requires genuine changes in mentality, and a true entrepreneurial mindset,” says Njuki. “When it comes to supply, women must learn to aspire to success. It is one of the aims of IDRC’s entrepreneurship training programmes, which combine technical and economic components, including the development of a business plan, and motivational aspects, such as using networks to present and implement a business plan.”

To help women scale their businesses, key factors that need be addressed can be grouped into four main areas according to AgriFIN. Firstly, from a financial standpoint, products specifically designed to support women, such as secure savings mechanisms, should be mainstreamed. Moreover, women are generally more reliable borrowers, so loan packages should be differentiated to account for the lower risk of loan default. Financial innovations that reduce bank collateral demands, such as land ownership guarantees, would also be a good option for women borrowers.

Secondly, regarding donors’ work in developing countries, it is proposed to further develop specific support for women-owned businesses. Makkha thus advocates targeting donations specifically towards women in the same vein as prizes offered as a reward to women.

The social aspect is the third focus area. Women (as well as men) should take part in mindset-changing training programmes. In addition, developing women's socio-emotional skills is essential to help them build self-esteem, manage employees and innovate, while also convincing them not to simply be satisfied with minimum performance. According to the World Bank, programmes which include training in soft skills – that boost women’s self-confidence and encourage them to challenge social norms – are truly effective.

Finally, from a policy perspective, much remains to be done to effectively erase gender differences in most countries, particularly on equal property ownership and inheritance rights. These gender imbalances including lack of capital, insufficient training and limited access to markets can all conspire to constrain women entrepreneurs’ success in scaling up their businesses. Nevertheless, “Everything is based on innovation, diversification and investment,” states Diariétou Gaye, World Bank director of strategy and operations for the Africa Region. “As soon as women are offered the possibility of developing new prospects beyond their simple business, they succeed.”