It is a well-established and reported fact that South African women are poorly represented at senior levels in business. As if that is not enough of a cause for concern, research by Bain & Company shows that the percentage of women engaged in early-stage entrepreneurial activity is also very low.
Recent findings by the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs reveals that the number of women in early-stage entrepreneurial activity dropped by 15.7% in 2018. Only 18.8% of business owners in SA are women – compared with 46.4% in Ghana, the country with the highest number of women-led companies.
Earlier in August, traditionally a month for celebrating and promoting women in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged that: “The face of poverty and suffering is still worn by the women of South Africa … They are neglected in the provision of government services and are overlooked by the business community.”
Statistics show that women and children bear the brunt of poverty in the country – with households headed by women significantly poorer than male-led households.
Surveys show that one way out of this dead end is to promote entrepreneurship and social enterprise development in particular. Helping women to start their own businesses or social enterprise contributes not only to their economic empowerment, but also to increasing their sense of self-worth, confidence and strengthening respect and status. Social enterprises tend to be more sustainable in the long term and have been shown to increase collaboration, strengthen and uplift communities.
So what can be done to boost women entrepreneurship in South Africa? There is, of course, no magic bullet or quick fix, but by focusing on five key areas, we can start to correct the current imbalance.
1. Sharing good ideas – replicating models that work
There are many examples of successful business models and social enterprises working in areas of women’s empowerment around the world. However, very few women know about them. Learning how other women operate and how they have overcome difficulties can be helpful and inspiring for those who are in the process of starting a business. These stories need to be told and shared via the media and social media as well as community groups and platforms. Two decades of research from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor has shown a link between levels of start-up activity in a country and the amount of media coverage and celebration of entrepreneurship.
2. Personal development can lead to entrepreneurial activity
Many women living in poor socioeconomic conditions lose hope of ever gaining opportunities to better themselves. Simple programmes can bring about significant changes, however. One such programme, The Social Makeover, took 20 women from the Cape Flats and helped them with confidence issues, self-esteem as well as job skills training. Upon completing the programme, there was a 100% success rate in terms of finding jobs for all the candidates.
For one particular individual, the programme helped her to give up drugs and a life of crime, and to get a good job, enabling her to look after her children as well as other family members. Having others believe in her ability to realise her potential and change her circumstances, gave this young woman the courage to transform her life and improve her financial position.
3. Scaling successful projects/workshops
We need to foster an environment that addresses the barriers faced by women entrepreneurs to access resources and offer support to develop businesses, scale them up and make them sustainable. Women need access to finance, technology, innovation and good governance. To foster such an ecosystem, multi-sectoral collaboration is essential. This can be done by creating community networks and holding workshops for entrepreneurs and innovators.
Even a one-day workshop can be successful in establishing productive conversations that lead to innovative thinking. In one incidence, a conversation with a medical doctor who no longer wanted to work in hospitals resulted in her being directed to the vast possibilities in the technology and health sector: i.e. apps for health access and advice or providing medical insurance.
4. Network, mentor, communicate
Far too many women rely on government grants to support them. Much more needs to be done to help women realise that the change begins with them. Collaborating with other women, being part of networks and communicating more with others is vital to helping women gain the confidence to start their own businesses.
Networking is known to be instrumental to business success yet women reportedly dislike it. Leadership development expert Liz de Wet who runs the Executive Women in Leadership programme at the UCT Graduate School of Business says: “Networking is about connecting to and with others in a mutually generous and helpful manner. Many women feel uncomfortable in a scenario that looks like they are selling themselves, or engaging in superficial conversation for selfish reasons, but networking can be a generative, collegial, reciprocal and generous part of our work.”
5. More investment is needed for women-led social enterprises
There is very little investment globally as well as locally in women’s empowerment and social enterprises that tackle gender equality and women’s empowerment. According to the World Bank, globally less than 1% of impact investment goes to women’s empowerment. Results from such initiatives can be hard to track or quantify, but many centres – such as the Bertha Centre – and institutes are working on ways to measure results and find tools that could promote impact investment.
In addition, the money is there. Investors who specialise in impact investment – which is investing to make an impact either socially, environmentally or developmentally – in South Africa has amounted to $4.9 billion according to the Global Impact Investing Network. Becoming attractive to such investors and being able to meet the criteria of such investors should be on the agenda for local entrepreneurs as well as organisations and groups helping them.
Considering that women reinvest up to 90% of their income into their families compared to men who only reinvest 30% to 40%, improving the earning potential and conditions for women has enormous implications for society as a whole. On a personal level, I have seen how simple it can be to inspire and bring hope – taking as little as two minutes for one woman. Yet the benefits for her children, family and the community around her, will last a lifetime.
• Farhana Parker is a social entrepreneur and Bertha Scholar on the UCT GSB MPhil in Inclusive Innovation programme. She has worked in communities in South Africa for more than a decade as a social worker, special projects manager at the ministry of social development as well as being the founder and managing director of The Social Makeover. The Bertha Centre’s annual call for scholarship applications is now open until October 31. Get more information here.