Posted by: beninmwangi | February 28, 2007

African Business Women Series: Why So Important

I think that a good place to begin this discussion is to address the perception of Africa’s women from those who are outside and looking inside. Before we go deeper about perceptions of African women, let me say that term “African women” can be a bit of a misnomer since the continent of Africa is so ethically and socially diverse. I’ll bet if you took 1000 people from different parts of Africa and asked them what does it mean to be African, you’d probably get at least 1001 totally different answers. So it would follow that Africa’s women would also fall into many different categories culturally speaking. But the reason that I have chosen to use the broad category “African” women is that although we who have been there know that the people are far from homogeneous, many who have not been there do not know this. And every now and then what others think of us can be almost as important to our identity as what we think about ourselves.

So this post is actually being written not only to argue that it is desirable for the African continent to do better at utilizing its business women for development; but also to try and demystify the perception of African women as being non-assertive in business or life in general.

**Time out** I would like to take a brief recess and take you into some of the experiences that have actually helped to mold my views of Africa. I can recall as a young man barely in high school hearing my fathers report about his first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa-Senegal. He ran down the experience in very careful detail and actually accompanied his synopsis with lot’s of pictures for me to see. Outside of the images of South Africa that I had seen as a child this was my first glimpse at Sub-Saharan Africa. Now because my father has always been very passionate about Africa the pictures that he showed me were no big surprise. What I mean is that the fact that these pictures conveyed through beaches, highways, skyscrapers, and etc. a sense of being in a thriving African town was not really new to me. By then I had already been exposed to my father’s formal unpaid lectures at local high schools in the predominately black sections of Atlanta, GA. His theme and topic was… guess? Africa..the theme of his lectures at the high schools was letting these young children of African descent know that their history did not start on the banks of Plymouth Rock, but that it actually began in various parts of Africa with some very relevant civilizations that existed from ancient times up until pre-colonial times. The lectures started in Ancient Kemet and usually they progressed into Meroe, Ashanti, Mali, Zimbabwe, and etc. the culminating point of the lecture was the family tree…Our family tree on his Mom’s side of the family which he was able trace back to Cape Coast, Ghana. The premise being that if children can be optimistic about their past, then they could be optimistic about their future. Anyhow, one way that that story relates here is in perceptions….After the lectures the reaction from the students was always the same-kids rushed up to share some conversations with my Dad and were amazed to find out so much more about Africa than they would have imagined. Those lectures were my introduction into seeing how one can help reverse the lop sided views that some people have about Africa. But over the years I have found that perhaps the most polarizing views about Africa pertain to the women of Africa. I can recall some of the questions and comments that I received from different folks around the time that my wife and I were still dating. People assumed that because she was from Kenya and Kenya is in Africa that she must not be very self-assured or secure about herself. When I told them that just as we have here in the States I am sure that one could probably find some women in Africa that are more passive. But for some reason I’d have never personally come across any who fit that mold, including my wife, it was like we were speaking different languages to each other. Of course, gradually overtime they began to see that the ideas that they had turned out just to be generalizations…And though this is just another one of my side notes, I think it’s useful to the conversation. It is about Wairimu, (whom I am very happily married to by the way) by the time we met, she had already been a two-store manager for a local petroleum company in Atlanta, GA- this was long before she had a degree and when she was just 22 years old. The entrepreneurial aspirations that she shared with me at the time were to engage in health management facilities in Kenya after she learns the system here. I mention my wife’s example for two reasons 1) because I think that Wairimu’s spirit and determination reminds me a great deal of what the business women that I observed in the parts of Africa that I visited and 2) because I am so proud of her.

So now for the remainder of the post…Why it is so important for Africa to start drawing more upon women owned enterprises as a way to grow economically is what we will now look at. To sum it up Africa needs both more women entrepreneurs and more women entrepreneurs to make the transition from micro enterprise to small business or medium sized businesses and large businesses. This is because
although Africa’s business women are already doing a lot to help their respective economies grow, in relation to their population numbers and ratios, Africa’s economies are still under utilizing business women. Additionally, in most rapid growth economies the high digit growth often comes from the small business sector. It should be noted that we are distinguishing small businesses from micro-businesses. The number of employees is one of the easiest ways to determine whether a business fits into the micro-business category (6-10 employees) or the small business category(11-50 employees). An observation that I have made and heard by others is that although there are some very strong and competitive indigenous businesses and industries within Africa, there seem to be a disproportionately larger number of micro-businesses than their larger cousins the small businesses. I believe this is more pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa than North Africa because of the population trends. Sub-Saharan Africa has more women than men the aggregate total that I have heard about is that for every 100 men in SSA there are 102 women. In some parts of SSA this is much more acute than in other parts, but if women have more constraints and make up a larger part of the population than men, then that could explain why there is such a gap in Africa between informal1 to 10 person enterprises in Africa versus the formal 11 to 50 person enterprises. One more side note here is that large businesses in Africa are fairly abundant, it is the small businesses that usually lead to economic and employment growth since large firms are sometimes just as prone to lay off workers as they are to hiring them. This concept has allowed economists and policy makers to isolate the small business sector as the missing link to prosperity in many of Africa’s economies. Also something that I almost failed to mention is that the majority of Africa’s micro enterprise owners are women, so that has allowed economists to go a step beyond just saying Africa needs. This is one of the reasons that many of the social investment and micro-credit organizations operating in Africa target women for business development initiatives. Below is an excerpt which reinforces some of what was just said:

“…Gerry Finnegan, the director of the ILO Program on Women Entrepreneurs told Voice of America reporter Ruby Ofori, “What has happened is that …the larger businesses are not creating any new jobs. The public sector and state-owned enterprises have been cutting back on the number of workers for the past two years. Now people are thrown back on their own reserves, and many of them are starting up in businesses on their own.” Mr. Finnegan says around 100,000 women in Kenya and 200,000 women in Ethiopia run small businesses that have the potential to grow and employ more people if they are able to obtain the right support and funding. These businesses range from trading and services to handicrafts, tailoring, small-scale manufacturing and food processing…”
Source: VOA News

Prior to actually writing this post, my hope was that it would end up containing lot’s of data and statistics. Mainly what I found on this topic was very, very outdated. So instead what we will do is include a resources list at the end of this post. This is for anyone out there who just has to see some numbers and also for anyone out there who would cringe at the sight of seeing 10 year old statistics showing up in this post. Win-win situation, right 🙂 Anyhow, I hope that this post was both enjoyable and informative to you. Stay tuned as we head into news covering Africa’s business women…and I hope to see you armed with lots of comments for this and the next couple of posts on the topic!

Additional Resources:

African Development Bank Group on gender and inclusion.

Focus International
with statistics on gender, inclusion, and participation in Africa. Some of data is not very current, however it was still difficult to find such detailed figures as the ones that they have provided.

African Development Bank Group overview on issues facing African women in business with suggested anecdotes and resources.

Article from Business in Africa, which looks at business women’s achievements in South Africa and in America.

From the UN comes a publication called Africa Recovery, in this issue are a series of profiles and case studies which debunks the notion that Africa lacks strong leadership amongst its leaders.

Of course, I love your comments. But, if you can’t comment at this particular time- but would like to let us know that you were here; please sign and View my guestbook



  1. Awesome post!

  2. Thanks T, by the way sometime between today and tomorrow my 1st post on the
    Sub-Saran Africa section of Global Voices should be available on their website. Your blog was one of the blogs that I mentioned in my first review. As soon as I get the link I will let you know!

  3. […] web for more data on marketing African businesses to companies worldwide and I came across a most informative site. No wonder they are also #1 on Google for a number of topics centering on […]

  4. […] Benin Mwangi Brown (who I have been in dialogue with over some months now) who has just written an interesting post about; “Why it is so important for Africa to start drawing more upon women owned enterprises […]

  5. In answer to the question “So where are all the women???”, I’d like to stand up and be counted and I urge others to follow.

    I am co-founder, VP and COO of LaGray Chemical Company – the first fully integrated pharmaceutical manufacturing company in West Africa ( Situated at Nsawam, Ghana, the manufacturing facility was specifically designed and built to US-FDA standards so that we can supply high quality pharmaceuticals at low cost to the entire continent. Self-sufficiency in healthcare for Africa is a passion of mine and LaGray was set up by my husband and me to provide practical solutions to Africa’s healthcare problems through sustainable technological growth. For the first time in West Africa, we manufacture active pharmaceutical ingredients from globally available commodity chemicals, convert them via chemical synthesis to active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and finally to finished dosage forms such as capsules, tablets and topical medications.

    We just completed construction of the first phase of the facility, received our manufacturing license and started production last month. Our products will be on the market by August. We currently employ approximately 70 young men and women, half of whom are scientists at the HND to Masters Degree level who are eagerly learning new technologies from us. By the end of next year, we will have about 150 employed in a wide range of positions.

    I am a proud alumna of Springboard in the US ( and I hope one day other like-minded African women entrepreneurs can come together to set up a similar organization to assist aspiring young women entrepreneurs on the continent.

    I am also one of the 100 Fellows who attended TED Global in Arusha last week ( I missed the early parts of the conference, coming in late on the night of 5th June because I left Chicago on the 3rd immediately after my daughter’s wedding on the 1st and 2nd of June. My youngest daughter graduated from Univ. of Virginia two weeks earlier. I mention this only to emphasize that African women frequently juggle triple roles of wife, mother and entrepreneur with ease.

    In conclusion, I’m positive there are many other African women entrepreneurs like me out there and we need to spread the word about what we are doing to encourage the younger generation to join us.

  6. Regarding up to date information on women entrepreneurs in Africa try:
    There are many up to date documents there on women entrepreneurs in Sub Saharan Africa, including tools for women’s entrepreneurship development. Some of them by Gerry Finnegan who you mention in your piece!

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