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Creating Equal Opportunities for Women in Africa

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According to the World Economic Forum, female-led startups have great potential to transform Africa. Research by the World Bank shows that women make up 58% of Africa’s self-employed population, and are more likely to become entrepreneurs than men. Female-led startups are not only as profitable than male-led startups, but are more likely to have a positive social impact on their communities. And 76% of Africans see entrepreneurship as a good career choice, which is the highest rate in the world.

That said, the gender gap in Africa may not be closing anytime soon, in light of the numerous challenges faced by women in the marketplace – whether these lie in overcoming cultural stereotypes, balancing work and family demands, or accessing funding for their startups.

So what can be done by business leaders (men and women alike) to create the space for women to effectively manage all the different roles they fulfil, while building a successful career?

This was the topic of Ziwani’s online ‘At The Lake’ discussion on 2 March 2023, where a panel of seasoned business leaders shared their perspectives on the benefits of empowering women in the African marketplace. The panel was hosted by Susannah Farr (CEO at gold Youth, Rwanda) and included Dr Irene Banda (Founder at TUCUZA, Zambia), Sylvia Kithinji (Partner at Ashitiva Associates, Kenya), and Anthony Farr (CEO at Allan & Gill Gray Philanthropies, Africa).

Below is a summary of the panel discussion.

Recognise that talking about gender equality is uncomfortable

It is interesting that – irrespective of how the conversation is framed – talking about creating equal opportunities for women in the marketplace is not only uncomfortable for men, but for women too.

As Irene commented, “In my own career I had never considered gender to be an issue. Actually, I was on the other extreme where I felt like, just pull up your socks and do what needs to be done. Don’t me sell the ‘women conversation’. It was only when I started interacting closely with women on low-income levels, and experienced it for myself in the banking environment, that I had to recognise it was real.”

Sylvia agreed, “I had the same bias. I also thought that the gender issue should not necessarily be mainstream, and that it didn’t deserve the level of attention it was getting.”

For Anthony, the 2022 annual gathering of the African Philanthropy Forum was a turning point. “The entire programme focused on the issue of gender, and initially I was taken aback. I felt that it could be included as a theme, but that it was a bit extreme to have a whole conference focus on it. By the end, however, I was in a completely different space in terms of understanding the importance of the topic, and the reasoning behind the programming.”

So why is talking about gender equality in the marketplace so uncomfortable? Anthony explained, “There are so many dimensions to this, and people are naturally resistant to things that are difficult. They know things should change, but there are so many entrenched systems that it’s easier for people to shrink back than to fully engage.”

“What is important for moving the conversation forward constructively,” he pointed out, “is to think about how to respond wisely to the discomfort it elicits from people.”

Why closing the gender gap is fundamentally important

After working for Standard Bank in London for a number of years in their international corporate finance team, Anthony took a temporary transfer to South Africa, where he became aware of the extent of the HIV/Aids pandemic. “I spent time with children who had been orphaned by the pandemic, and suddenly all my assumptions about the importance of global finance crumbled before me,” he explained. This started a journey in a very different direction, where he eventually co-founded the Starfish Foundation before moving to the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation in 2005.

Having worked with incredible women in the global finance, social impact and startup environments, he is of the opinion that “there is a lack of appreciation of how important the issue of gender equality really is.” Especially considering the barriers to economic progress in Africa, “there cannot be many bigger issues than getting this right, because we are trying to move forward on the continent, while operating at way less capacity than we could, if women were fully included.”

“People need to understand that this isn’t grandstanding, it is fundamental to the progress we need to make, and it’s one of the biggest levers we can use to bring positive change,” he stated.

Why men also need to engage in the gender conversation

According to the panellists, there is an incorrect assumption that this conversation needs to happen only among women. Anthony commented, “There’s an immediate reaction from many men that because it is about women, it is only for women. But the challenges cannot be solved from one side only.”

He continued, “However, we must be careful that we don’t set ourselves up in opposition to each other, but rather focus on harnessing the fullness of what we could both contribute to a solution.”

Sylvia agreed that men have an incredible ability to support and protect women. “This conversation about gender equality should be two-way, where women recognise the key roles men fulfil in society,” she stated.

Anthony encouraged men to admit that they have blind spots. “It’s helpful to have an attitude of humility, realising that there are many experiences of women we don’t fully understand. And until we start listening, we will keep perpetuating the same systemic issues. So even though it sometimes is more comfortable being in an environment that is male-orientated, just being aware of how we might be excluding women, is constructive.”

“The primary motivation for change must be the understanding of what is possible when we do this right, however, as opposed to doing it out of some sort of compliance,” he emphasised.

There has been progress, but perceptions are still limiting

Born in a small town in Kenya to a mixed-race family, Sylvia knew from a young age that she wanted to be a lawyer. She eventually joined a female-led firm, wanting to be involved in work that would make a “difference to the country, work that would make a difference to clients. The type of impact work only international law firms were doing.”

“Unfortunately,” Sylvia remarked, “if you’re a woman working in law in Kenya, the assumption is that you will work in children’s court, or in family court. So even though the statistics paint a progressive picture (44% of laywers in Kenya are women), this perception is limiting. What happens to those who want to do different types of work? And it’s not just in terms of personal preference, but also in terms of your income capacity, your ability to create change at scale. You’re locked out of that opportunity and you really have to push hard to get to the same level as a male counterpart.”

Seven years later she met Nelson Ashitiva, who encouraged her to aim high – to create systems that would create opportunities for women (and men) across the world. “Today as a lawyer and a partner, I have that opportunity to curate the work that I do. It’s not just a source of livelihood, it’s using a platform to create impact.”

Cultural challenges faced by women in lower-income brackets

Following social convention at the time, Irene’s dad wanted her to become a nurse. But she had other plans – she became a banker.

It was probably still as a result of her family’s influence. “Our family was in the low-income bracket. We all participated in making money. If my mother was knitting or crocheting what she was going to sell, we participated. If my father was hauling mangoes from the rural areas to sell, we participated. He had mini-buses and there were nine of us, so we all had tasks. We would find ourselves in a mini-bus being the conductor, and that was just life.”

Many years later while working in the banking sector, Irene was constantly thinking about how to reach those in the low-income bracket. “It wasn’t the strategy of my employer, but I was given permission to go and see if I could come up with a business model that would work. And so I became one of the first ‘movers and shakers’ that started the microfinance industry in Zambia.”

Currently she focuses on the rural agricultural sector, where there is still a stark contrast between what is culturally expected of women, versus what is culturally expected of men.

“Every time I drive past the farms, no matter how early, the women are cultivating the fields. Where are the men? They are mostly at the local recreational centre, playing pool and drinking. I’ve seen this pattern repeated over and over – the women do the work, and make the money, and the men spend it. And usually, the spending is not for the benefit of the whole family.”

She elaborated, “Sometimes we would give loans to women and they wouldn’t want us to tell their husbands because that money would not be used appropriately. Or sometimes husbands would complain that their women were no longer subservient, and we were responsible for that. We would encourage a group of women to create a formal structure around their work, and they would still select a man to lead them. So, there’s a sense in which the women have accepted that the men are the leaders, but at the same time the men are not exercising their leadership in terms of ensuring that their families are actually fed. There’s definitely work to be done in this regard.”

Cultural challenges faced by women in higher-income brackets

Sylvia described a regular experience of women in her line of work. “As Head of Corporate and Commercial, I’m always seeking out new opportunities, meeting with new clients. Unfortunately, there are those potential clients who cross a line, who elicit (and expect) sexual favours in return for business. I am fortunate enough to be able to turn them down, but how many women have that option?”

She continued, “The majority of the female entrepreneurs in law do not have supportive work environments. They have no choice (or they feel that they have no choice) and what normally happens is that they capitulate. This has been a problem in the legal fraternity in Kenya for a long time, and my sincere hope is that conversations like these will raise the level of awareness about it.”

Irene related her own experience in the banking sector, where twice she had been given the title of a position, without the decision-making authority of that position. “Following the succession plan of my predecessor, I was appointed as the Managing Director of a small bank. Unfortunately, it was made clear that I had been given the position only as a ‘public face’, because internally I had to report to a man who was much lower in the hierarchy. So I left,” she said. Many years later, as a Global Director in Geneva, she realised, “I had very little scope for actually making decisions. I was told, ‘You have to do what we tell you to do.’” Again, she left.

So are women perceived as lacking competence in the marketplace as a result of stereotyping?

“I have seen very competent women suffering at the hands of stereotyping,” Sylvia lamented. Anthony raised the concern that just the fact that there could be a question about leadership being about competence versus gender showed how deeply entrenched stereotyping was.

He reiterated, “If we could respond based on the potential benefits that equal opportunities would unlock for everyone, we would have far more success in driving this forward. We would have more competent leaders (as opposed to just gender-based leaders) from the grassroots of society through to the highest levels.”

Another challenge that most working women face, is how to balance family life with running a business as an entrepreneur.

Anthony told of how surprised he was when first finding out this was such a burning issue. “We’re involved in a talent investor, where we work with some of the highest potential young entrepreneurs in East Africa. After a session presented by a high-profile female business leader, almost all the questions were from the female entrepreneurs, asking how they were to manage a family and continue building a high growth business. We hadn’t even thought to engage with this issue, and yet given the slightest opportunity to speak to a relatable leader suddenly the full extent emerged. It certainly revealed my blind spot,” he smiled.

Finding a way forward

“In my experience,” Sylvia stated, “there isn’t strong networking support for female entrepreneurs. There may be fragmented interventions, but nothing that allows women to flourish. We need to create networks that recognise the gaps, and where we can learn how to fill those gaps.” Susannah agreed, “Networking is important. So that even where we’re working against the grain and we know opportunities are hard to come by because of systemic issues, we can support one another to get where we want to go.”

“When we start talking about empowering women,” Irene added, “one thing that is very clear is that it needs take into account the every-day context of women. For example, there simply is no talk of ‘work-life balance’ in the villages – where women start working at 4am, and then still have to cook supper and clean the house when they get back from the fields at 7pm. How do we equip women to delegate responsibilities within their own context?”

Anthony joined in, “The main thing is to admit that this is a distorted situation, and that there are significant systemic issues. Therefore we need to be equally bold in terms of the interventions needed to reach some sort of equilibrium. We’re in an abnormal situation and therefore for a period of time we’re going to need abnormal responses to recalibrate the situation.”

“It is so dramatic,” he exclaimed, “that currently on this continent only about 4% of venture capital funding is allocated to female-led founders. How can it be that we have a situation where half the population is getting 4% of the resources available?”

“Creating equal opportunities for women in the marketplace isn’t something we need to be ‘politically correct’ about,” he noted. “This is fundamentally affecting the future prosperity of the continent.”

Susannah summarised the panel discussion. “This is obviously a very important topic. If we can understand the significance of getting this right, and recognise its potential to unlock widespread prosperity in Africa, that would be really exciting.”

“And so those of us who are empowered, men and women,” she concluded, “need to be aware of those who may not have the same support, who may shrink back, and may not be as bold as we might be in that situation. Perhaps, if all of us just speak up a little bit more, we can create the space for women to thrive.”

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Dr Irene Banda, Sylvia Kithinji & Anthony Farr

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