WONDER WOMEN! opportunity vs. opportunism

Esther A. Armah

Women entrepreneurs. They are a crucial part of Ghana’s economic backbone.  They are job creators. Their blood, sweat and tears turn initiative into employment. That initiative is not always born of vision or passion. Sometimes it is born of necessity, hunger, lack of opportunity and a need to support families.

Starting that business is often the result of savings, friends, family, borrowing, begging. Growth requires something else. It requires planning and it requires policy.

Women entrepreneurs are challenged with access to finance. No finance, no growth.

The World Bank reveals that only 47% of women worldwide have access to financial institutions.  In Ghana in July 2017, the President set up a 100 million dollar package to fund the National Entrepreneurship and Innovation Plan (NEIP). Ghana also has the National Board for Small Scale Industries. The Ministry for Business Development announced a GhC10m fund for women entrepreneurs at its February 20th Women Entrepreneurship Conference whose theme was ‘Unleashing Women entrepreneurship for inclusive growth’. The Minster for Business Development had no details of how women would access the GhC10m fund announced at this Conference.

Such creations are only laudable if they produce results. The only way to do that is to create working plans with implementable timescales, oversight, accountability and deadline for execution.

The single question for women entrepreneurs: how do they access these funds in order to serve their businesses?

Currently, there is a potholed path filled with launched initiatives, announced funds and articulated commitments to women entrepreneurs. This rocky, neglected road – much like the roads of Ghana – are much traveled, are the subject of constant complaint and too often end in casualty and not created opportunity.  By that I mean, there is no specific plan for when and how women entrepreneurs can access these funds, no announcement as to the process to be followed to access the funds.

Enough is enough.

Women entrepreneurs are not ‘Wonder Woman’. Although many describe them as Super women. They are not the former and they should not have to be the latter.  Wonder woman is a mythical figure who wears bracelets that magically elevate her and propel her throughout fictional locations. She spins around and goes from daywear to warrior wear. Ghanaian women entrepreneurs are not wonder women. They are however a sector whose needs are unmet and who are faced with a growing list of promises whose one commonality is that they are unmet.

Our economy historically has catered to multi nationals. SMEs have largely been left to navigate the rocky road to ruin or pray that some kind of path to success manifests. It has too often relied on personal struggle, sacrifice – it has rarely featured the actual contribution of financial institutions. And yet, the consistent narrative is that entrepreneurs are engines that drive the future of thriving African economies.

This government has consistently articulated a dual commitment to women and to entrepreneurs.

In President Akufo Addo’s every speech since his inauguration, he has spoken of a commitment to women and he has argued that entrepreneurs comprise a crucial part of Ghana’s giant engine of progress through job creation.

I am a woman entrepreneur. I am part of a sector of thousands and thousands of women.  I have been inspired to hear this President’s commitment to both entrepreneurs and women.

However, at this point when it comes to both categories, this administration is failing in ways that are preventable and unacceptable.

Women entrepreneurs are not to be sidelined; nor should they be engaged as an opportunity to flex on an as yet unbuilt platform which simply offers more promise and delivers nothing but Conferences with pastries and a buffet lunch.

The announcement of the Minister of Business Development’s fund follows the launch of  GADIA (Gender and Development Initiative in Africa). GADIA’s first efforts were Gender Awards under the theme “Making Gender Equality the Private Sector’s Business”. Every single award was given to men for their apparent promotion of gender in the workplace.

Statistics reveal the formal sector employs about 6.2% of women, 3.3 % in the public sector and 2.9% in the private sector. Such numbers are staggeringly low. The majority of women are employed in what we call the ‘informal sector’.  Women comprise approximately 52% of Ghana’s population.

Ghana still has no Affirmative Action Bill. The single piece of legislation that makes equality law is unpassed and has not moved from wherever it languished before the President delivered an unhelpful apology during the State of the Nation address. And this President is the recipient of African Union Gender Champion award.

Enough is enough.

Women entrepreneurs: this is our call to take action. It is beyond time women entrepreneurs resist this path of platitudes where nothing but another award ceremony to which we are not present, not invited, not acknowledged; occurs; or another conference with too little for us on its menu.

In Ghana, women are invited to a table, are expected to seek permission before we speak and are required to resist speaking out if we have not been called upon.

Women entrepreneurs have our own work to do.

Let’s talk collaboration, identified specific needs, solutions and action. The single identified need is access to finance.

Many women entrepreneurs  are highly skilled in specific areas: commitment, initiative, sacrifice. Many do not speak the language of access to finance. That can be solved with training. If we married communications trainers with bankers, such trainings could teach groups of women entrepreneurs to speak the language of money and accessing finance. Training in actually pitching and selling their products is also a necessity. That is a powerful beginning. We are a sector seeking a skillset that enables us to pursue the next step in building businesses neglected, negated and unimportant to anyone, but us.

Right now, when it comes to action regarding women entrepreneurs this government and its Ministries are serving empty dishes of platitudes and pleasantries and inviting women to feast on such fayre as if they were bowls of fufu and palm soup.

Unfulfilled. Unimpressed. Uninspired.

There is no magical place where enabling environments to ensure women’s financial health to secure growing business, a thriving economy and elevated progress can happen.  We cannot entrepreneur our way out of poverty into progress. We still require functioning institutions – including financial institutions – which evolve to recognize, serve and fulfill the needs of women entrepreneurs – who are also customers.

Financial institutions are making laudable commitments to women. However, the Women Entrepreneurship Conference reminded us that many lack any real understanding of how gender discrimination and disparity actually function when it comes to finance and specifically women entrepreneurs. As a result, too few services exist that serve women entrepreneurs. Instead, banks and their representatives too often sit on panels and serve rhetoric of commitment to women. That rightly creates skepticism that women are not a focus, merely a favour.

If your political – or financial – leadership tells women entrepreneurs they are a priority, but manifests nothing concrete to highlight that importance, it is not leadership. Priorities that do not transform into workable plans should be dismissed as playing politics with gender.

Equally, women cannot contribute to making a change sitting on sidelines awaiting permission to join the table of opportunity, funding, strategy, policy power.

Time’s Up for inaction, deflection, distraction.

There is a danger that the legacy of this government and this president is that they treat gender and women as opportunism. They are opportunists playing politics with gender and performing equality. They are doing this at the expense and the growing frustration of thousands of  hard-working women entrepreneurs.

We all have our work to do.

Women entrepreneurs are ready and willing to contribute. Their critique must be heard. It is consistent. It has reached fever pitch.

The time for action is now.