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In Africa, Women Entrepreneurs Struggle to Connect, Thrive


In Africa, Women Entrepreneurs Struggle to Connect, Thrive

By Anita Powell

JOHANNESBURG - Women make up half of the world’s population, but a recent study showed that corporations spend just one percent of their funds for acquisitions specifically on women-owned businesses. A Washington-based nonprofit is trying to change that, and says that supporting women-owned businesses has positive social effects.

Chef Molemo Virtuosa came up through the male-dominated industry of high-end cooking. She was one of only a few female chefs at some of the nation’s top hotels before starting her own catering business.

Despite her best efforts, her business suffers from something she can’t control: sexism. Although sub-Saharan Africa has some of the world’s highest rates of female entrepreneurship, businesswomen often struggle to get financing and build support networks.

For chef Mo, as she prefers to be called, pressure in the kitchen pressured her to hide away.

“When service becomes so busy, they really push you out the way because they don't think that you can push as quickly as they can, you know, and take out the food as quickly as they can as well," she said. "I think that's why I also decided on becoming a pastry chef, and not just being skilled in the food, high-end dining you know, fine dining and all of that, because I think with the pastries, I was able to just hide away from all these males and do my pretty work, you know, without them being in my face."

Non-profit WEConnect International is trying to bring businesswomen to the forefront, by linking women-owned businesses to qualified buyers and running educational seminars for women entrepreneurs.

“Women represent a third of the world's private businesses, they're half the population, they make or influence over 75 percent of all purchasing decisions," says Elizabeth Vazquez, CEO of WEConnect International. "We need women and men to be in our value chains. We need them to step up and deliver solutions to the problems that we all face. And women are uniquely qualified, because of their life experience, to provide solutions, that right now, we don't have access to."

And, says business owner Belukazi Nkala, women entrepreneurs often find solutions that have long been ignored by their male counterparts. Her company designs work clothing for women engineers, miners and factory workers. It’s not about just aesthetics, she says — but safety.

“The one thing that I've noticed, especially with women, is we tend to — everything about the workwear tends to be oversized because we're trying to compensate for one part of our body or another," she said. "So it's important that from a safety element, it has to fit properly to be able to be in it in an environment, for example in mining, you can't be caught onto something. And, you know, something could happen which could obviously be a safety issue, or something hazardous that could happen at work.”

For chef Mo, investing in women is just good business sense.

“We're able to run households. I mean, honestly speaking, you get home and you make sure that there’s dinner cooked at a certain time, you make sure that the kids are well-fed, the kids are bathed, you know they're sleeping and what not," she said. "If I'm able to manage a household after a full day of work, how can you now exclude me from a business?”

But she doesn’t want your business just because she’s a woman. Instead, she says, look for proof of her virtuosity, in her pizza.

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