One of the first things that struck me when I arrived in Lagos, in April 2014, to join the Tony Elumelu Foundation, was the number of women in senior positions and on the Boards of the publicly listed companies in the Heirs Holdings Group: United Capital, Avon Health, Avon Medical, Afriland are all run by women. The Boards of UBA has several women as non-executive directors. While in the UK we were still debating getting more women on boards and in leadership positions in the FTSE 100 companies, Heirs Holdings Group, a Nigerian investment company was leading by example.
Globally, it is a fact that advancing women’s equality could add $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025, and we know that when a woman does well, her family eventually does well. Initiatives, such as the 30% Club launched in the UK to ensure FTSE 100 companies have at least 30% women on executive management boards to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in Circles that started in the USA and have spread globally, aim to foster communities where women fulfil their full potential.
African women constitute 70 percent of the informal economy and one third of Africa’s formal small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are owned by women. A World Bank report from as far back as 2008 entitled ‘Women in Africa – Doing Business’ noted that the rate of female entrepreneurship is higher in Africa than in any other region in the world. Right across the continent the spirit of entrepreneurship is evident: of all private enterprises in Ghana, 44% are led by women and on the other side of the continent in Rwanda the figure stands at 41%. Whilst many of these enterprises might be described as small family-run affairs, it does not stop them from pointing to a female population that is keen and willing to work and pertinently, is already playing a significant role in their respective countries’ economies.
The challenges that are faced by African women entrepreneurs are largely no different from their male counterparts: affordable and reliable energy sources, better infrastructure, intra-continental trade agreements and improved ITC provision, the wish-list of requirements remains the same. However, African women entrepreneurs also face bigger challenges than men across the continent in starting or expanding their businesses. For example, even though over 80% of the Nigerian farming workforce are women, less than 5% of landowners are women. In many countries, African women are barred from inheriting property – a key element of wealth transfer- which means women are disproportionally excluded in wealth distribution and redistribution. Access to finance is another major issue for women entrepreneurs as financial institutions, creditors, clients, and suppliers are less willing to lend to women business owners. There is also a lack of investor confidence in women entrepreneurs on the continent where investors would rather invest in men, than women. Many initiatives led by foreign development institutions were in the past restricted to men, but this is changing as more research shows that investments in women lead to more impact in economic development.