She suffered anaemia some 20 years ago. For a while, she relied on prescription drugs, but her condition persisted until a neighbour suggested that she check her vegetables’ source. This personal experience inspired Mercy Kilili to start Shamba Connect, a start-up that installs kitchen gardens in homes and trains people on hygienic vegetable gardening practices.
Things don’t have to be how they have been, says Emi-Beth Quantson, the Founder of Kawa Moka, a 100% women-owned Ghanaian coffee company specialising in producing artisan small-batch roasted coffee. Emi-Beth works in a male-dominated industry, where very few women have access to lands to cultivate cash crops like coffee. She aspires to change the narrative that men are the only people who can farm and trade in coffee.
When they audited start-up programmes in Europe, they could not find a single programme specifically for women of colour entrepreneurs. So Alina Bassi and her two other co-founders, all women, started Founderland to cater for the needs of this niche of women “who struggle with bias, microaggressions, and raising the typical ‘friends and family’ rounds that get founders through the first tough years.
Many women of colour entrepreneurs struggle in business, not because they are not capable. Often, it is because they are not connected to an investment network or support resources, the issue Alina and her team are committed to addressing.
Bias is also an issue that resonates with Gugu Sithole, the Director of Glamping Adventures. Through her start-up, Gugu offers a bespoke experience to tourists who want to experience the beauty and culture of South Africa. The fireside conversations after a day’s scenic exploration are where she tells her experience as a woman entrepreneur within the context of her wider society.
She notes that while it is exciting to see women involved in impactful projects, they are in the minority as many women still fall behind because their potential is stifled by backward beliefs. “Women belong to the kitchen”, is a living sociological construct in many places and communities around the world that continue to block their access to opportunities to this day.
For Riham, the founder of BznsBuilder, effectively breaking such constructs requires a paradigm shift in how women see themselves and work in addressing systemic failures. Women feel inadequate most times because they have been conditioned to feel so. Lack of access to personal and professional growth opportunities is also a factor. However, when given a chance, even a small one, women often push and exercise agency to overcome the limitations of their systems. BznsBuilder is a bilingual (English/Arabic) business planning online platform, supporting Egyptian entrepreneurs to formulate a viable business plan and beyond.
These are the text portraits of five resilient women entrepreneurs who are breaking barriers to make a meaningful impact in their entrepreneurial ecosystems. They participated in the AfricaBerlin Network’s panel discussion in partnership with Developers in Vogue on International Women’s Day 2022. These women entrepreneurs shared experiences of bias in their ecosystems, their impact, crucial triumphs and learnings. What stood out from the discussion is how these women entrepreneurs are making an impact in unique yet significant ways with their start-ups.
Mercy’s Shamba Connect has improved the haemoglobin levels of her community members in Kenya through sustained training and advocacy on hygienic vegetable gardening. Emi-Beth’s Kawa Moka, which started with six women farmers, has grown to 40 through her iron-clad intentionality to include women across her value chain and empower them economically.
She buys green beans directly from only women farmers. Alina’s Founderland, on the other hand, is connecting women entrepreneurs of colour with investors, and encouraging more of such women to believe that they can thrive in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) field.
Meanwhile, Gugu has built a community around Glamping Adventures which stemmed from the fireside stories. This has created a bond and a personal space for experience sharing. Riham’s BznsBuilder is impacting several Egyptian businesses – in the words of one customer, “It is giving entrepreneurs a structured way to build successful business plans”.
The presence, creativity and industry of existing women entrepreneurs alone cannot be considered the answer to the widening inequities in entrepreneurship. It makes zero sense in a coronavirus pandemic world to let recursive vulnerabilities and inequities thrive or expand. A recent study shows that countries with higher GDP and per capita income had resources to weather the impact of the pandemic, and had better and more timely crisis response interventions.
This should offer governments and other key stakeholders in emerging economies the raison d’être to attend to the imperative task of mitigating economic vulnerabilities within the gender line and nurturing a sustainable pipeline of women entrepreneurs and women in leadership. If not, we risk adding another 36 years to narrow the global gender gap in economic opportunity, among others, according to the latest MasterCard Index of Women Entrepreneurs Report 2021.
About the Author
Ernest Armah is the Country Manager of enpact Ghana and a team member of the AfricaBerlin Network.