Increasing Opportunities for Female Entrepreneurs in Africa

Cape Town, South Africa

Africa is home to a number of cities with the potential to become major global hubs for entrepreneurship. The continent remains one of the most promising markets for innovation in the world. According to forecasts published by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Africa will have the fastest-growing economy of any continent in the coming years.

One of the most important and growing segments of entrepreneurship in Africa — which is sometimes overlooked — is women. Some of the biggest entrepreneurial success stories to come out of Africa in the past few years involve women. For example, a young female developed SoleRebels, a shoe manufacturer based in Ethiopia, into a multimillion-dollar company. Today, the company sells sandals abroad for $60 or more per pair and employs about 100 workers. Women have emerged as a major driver of economic growth and opportunity for other Africans through job creation.

SoleRebels is not an isolated success story. Many African women have developed incredibly successful companies in traditional fields, such as artisan crafts and fashion design. However, many more are leading the charge for technological innovation. One of the founders of Ushahidi, a Web 2.0 crowdsourcing platform, is a 23-year-old female from Kenya. Women are also present in several other fields, such as aviation. In South Africa, the leading provider of aircraft charters is a company founded and developed by a woman.

According to the World Bank, the rate of female entrepreneurship is higher in Africa than in any other region in the world. Many countries in Africa with economies that are growing quickly, such as Rwanda and Ethiopia, focus on foreign direct investment and private enterprise rather than charitable aid. These countries remain some of the most progressive in terms of offering and supporting entrepreneurship opportunities among women. Rwanda, for example, changed its land title laws to allow women to register alongside their husbands, which has resulted in a significant increase in women-run farms.

The African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program

AWEP logo

Understanding the role that women have played in economic growth in Africa, several programs have emerged to give females the tools they need to start successful enterprises. One of the most prominent programs is the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP), which provides education and engagement for female entrepreneurs around the continent. A part of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), AWEP aims to promote the growth of businesses and foster better startup environments to nurture increased trade in Africa and between African nations and the United States. Companies such as SoleRebels have demonstrated the market that exists abroad for African goods, and AWEP aims to capitalize on the potential to generate greater income for women and make them a powerful voice for change in their local communities.

AWEP recognizes that reducing the gender gap depends on more than just entrepreneurial opportunity. The program has identified key needs in education, health care, and political participation that can foster greater economic inclusion and ultimately result in increased economic competitiveness for the entire continent.

Since its inception in 2010, AWEP has created a network of more than 1,600 female entrepreneurs who have generated more than 17,000 jobs across Africa. Participants, who come from 48 countries, remain in contact through participation in nearly two dozen business associations across the continent. A key component of AWEP is operated through the United States Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), which brings about 30 African female entrepreneurs to the United States each year. Over the course of the program, participants attend professional development workshops and network with key policymakers and industry leaders. Participants have an opportunity to discuss common challenges and formulate effective approaches to overcoming them.

Local Opportunity Through She Leads Africa

While international organization like AWEP can help to increase entrepreneurial opportunity among women in Africa, local solutions have also emerged. Recognizing that males continue to dominate many of the accelerators and incubators located throughout Africa, two young women recently founded She Leads Africa, a platform that holds a pitch competition for women on the continent and in the diaspora. Last year marked the inaugural edition of the competition, in which six finalists had the opportunity to pitch their ideas before some of Africa’s leading business executives.

She Leads Africa recognizes that Sub-Saharan Africa has an impressive rate of female entrepreneurship compared with other parts of the world and that these companies have greater difficulty in growing. Typically, they never expand past an employee or two. With help from accelerators or startup competitions, these businesses could transform into major enterprises, yet few women have the opportunity to participate in such opportunities.

The need for She Leads Africa is strong, with more than 380 entries received for the inaugural competition. The vast majority of the entries came from people who had never before entered a startup program or pitch competition. The excitement about such an opportunity speaks to the amazing potential held by these women and the demand for even more programs in support of female entrepreneurs in the future.