Trading African women

Kumeshnee West of the UCT Graduate School of Business
Kumeshnee West 1.JPG

The recently released Female Entrepreneurship Index 2015 compiled by The Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute ranked South Africa as 36th on its list of 77 countries and the leading country on the continent when it comes to fostering women entrepreneurship.

The National Development Plan (NDP) currently has its sights set on a target of 90% employment opportunities to be generated by and in the small to medium enterprise (SMME) sector by 2030. This, together with the target of a 5.4% annual growth rate, puts the SMME sector in a cardinal role.

Yet, with the amount of gender transformation in business in South Africa, there are still a number of socio-cultural, environmental, structural and financial difficulties that women face when entering the SMME sector. In this issue, Opportunity wanted to go beyond numbers and figures and spoke directly to experts and women entrepreneurs in South Africa about their experience in the industry and explore both the challenges and opportunities lying in wait for them.

Kumeshnee West, director of Executive Education at the UCT Graduate School of Business and an MBA graduate of the school, says that 21 years into democracy, there are still a variety of reasons that bars women from committing to entrepreneurship. She mentions traditional roles, the struggle of finding a balance between work and family life and the amount of pressure as the main issues.

“There is also evidence that women lack confidence when it comes to going for the top jobs. According to a recent survey of British managers, half the women – but less than a third of the men – admitted to feeling insecure about their job performance. And a study of Hewlett-Packard employees found that women applied for promotion only when they met 100% of the job requirements, whereas men were comfortable putting themselves up for promotion if they met just 60%,” she says.

Access to finance

West further highlights that access to finance and lack of financial skills is definitely a key challenge. “You can have the raw talent and ambition, but it is hard to navigate the complexities of being an entrepreneur.” She says they often find that entrepreneurs attend their course Finance for Non Financial Managers (FNFM) to plug this gap and comment on “how hard it is not having the knowledge.” It is for this reason that the course specifically seeks to equip people in business who are not accountants or financial managers with basic skills in finance, “so they can understand the language of finance and make better financial decisions.”

West says research shows that gender diversity at board level correlates to better business performance across a wide range of success indicators. “Boosting of women, boosts the bottom line,” West says. She further points out that according to a recent worldwide survey conducted by human resources consulting firm DDI together with The Conference Board, the top 20% of companies – as measured by financial performance – have, on average, 27% of leadership roles filled by women. Among the bottom 20% of financial performers, only 19% of leaders are women.

To achieve greater representation of women at the top would be to focus more on mentorship and training opportunities that enable women to develop confidence and give them the right tools, West says. In her opinion, corporates should be doing more. “A recent Grant Thornton report made specific mention of the fact that 79% of SA businesses did not have a specific programme to support or mentor women! Imagine how many more women we could get to the top if business was preapred to invest more in them!” she says.


Mel Tomlinson started her entrepreneurship journey at the age of 24, teaching aerobics at varsity, while buying unit trusts at the same time. By the age of 36 she sold her business for over R1 million and says even though she never made huge amounts of money, she considers herself contented with the fact that she has been able to live her passion while being independent at the same time.

Today she is the registered owner of Performance Booster, a licenced training product for women in the field of coaching, facilitating and HR. “I consider myself to be a conservative entrepreneur, a self-starter, hard worker and small business owner. I have always been able to identify business opportunities and never believed in allowing myself to be limited by men, circumstances or the economy,” she says.

When asked whether she believes we are seeing enough women entrepreneurs in South Africa 21 years into democracy, Tomlinson says if equal distribution between the sexes is the goal, it might never be realised due to a number of factors including traditional roles, role models and family requirements. There are however a number of challenges that women face, and as Tomlinson explains, “not everything can be blamed on politics and economics”. According to her, upbringing and socialisation is one of the greatest determining factors for the life and career we choose.

“It is only through a combination of determination, vision, education and strong role models that we are able to surpass our parents. On top of this, no matter what women have been blessed with, the important role of motherhood requires an entire skill set that differs significantly from that required in the work place and demands a fair share of attention not expected equally from our male counterparts. As with all things in life, one has to make sacrifices and we are innately programmed not to sacrifice our offspring. This however is changing as women become educated and are given opportunities and options which exclude children if they so wish,” she says.


Tomlinson further points out that reform through BBEEE encourages the fast tracking of women through the ranks of corporations or as suppliers to industry or partners in business. She says over the next few years we should see a significant increase in women in senior, executive positions, as shareholders or as business owners as a spin-off of BBEEE, where supplier development is rewarded.

“Not enough female role models especially in the African business woman sector, is a definite draw back for female want-to-be business owners. African women, more recently given more opportunities and encouragement in the business and political arena, have quickly risen to the occasion and are starting to provide the young and upcoming business women with successful role models. Publications such as Destiny magazine feature independent business women and international role models like Oprah Winfrey have largely taken on the cause of women’s rights in business and the community at large.

“Role models of our own gender and culture are one of the best forms of mentorship and that influences our decisions and choices in life. The more role models we have to base our dreams on, the easier it is for us to model ourselves on them, and dream bigger than we otherwise would have,” she says.

When asked about how women can go about exploring the multitude of trade and business opportunities available in SA, Tomlinson says firstly, it is important to understand one’s own strength, weaknesses, skills and interests. According to her it is far easier to survive in a business for which you have true passion and some skill, than in one for which you have little disposition for.

Her advice is however to get the necessary business related education required to run the enterprise.

“Enrol in a business management course, a business plan programme, a mentoring programme etc. Organisations such as SEDA are able to point one in the right direction. This will teach you about competition, marketing, budgeting, risk management and many other skills you will require as a business owner,” she says.


Looking at the vehicles currently in place that aim to empower women in the SMME sector, Louise van Loggerenberg, Director at Ambit Technology, says the work being done by the Small Business Development Agency (SEDA) is especially noteworthy. According to her, SEDA’s Special Projects and Programmes Unit (SPP) of the DTI has a directive which places special emphasis on projects for women.

Promoting women-owned business

She also says SEDA plays an important role in the following key government interventions that have been recommended to help promote women-owned businesses:

  • Entrepreneurial capacity building and training for women, especially on the factors that improve sustainability.
  • The Women Entrepreneurs Call Centre, which gives basic telephonic support to women when starting and running businesses.
  • Women Enterprise Programmes, such as the Women-owned Business Incentive schemes and mentorship programmes, have been introduced.
  • The promotion of private sector procurement for women, plus procurement training to help women entrepreneurs understand the entry criteria when applying for work or procuring contracts, can also help make a difference when it comes to helping women in business.
  • Export and Import Training programmes for South African female entrepreneurs have been launched to help them grow their businesses into foreign markets.

Looking at one of South Africa most important industries, mining, we still do not find ample participation by women. Van Loggerenberg says when looking at the MiHR Ramp – UP study, it illustrated that much of the problem stems from a lack of education, which, coupled with lack of awareness for students, affects enrolment in programs that can lead to a mining career. The study reported that only 10% of female students were aware of the mining sector, and showed a need for industry to reach out to students and collaborate with organisations like MiHR to attract new students.

Similarly, the transport industry remains largely male dominated. “Women’s jobs in this sector are lower-paying and less secure. Globally, they still earn less, own less, run smaller businesses, employ fewer people, and create fewer jobs than men, and they remain vastly more vulnerable to poverty. They are also far less likely than men to have access to a bank account, mobile money provider, or other financial service, according to the latest Global Findex report.

“All of this adds up to a costly missed opportunity for women, families, and economies, research shows. The OCED estimates that on average, across its member countries, a 50% reduction in the gender gap in labour force participation would boost GDP an extra 6% by 2030, with a further 6% gain if gaps closed entirely,” she says.

On the topic of the importance of intercontinental participation by women in Africa, Van Loggerenberg says political tension, conflict and violence diminish the capacity for women to engage in intercontinental trade. “Africa’s greatest asset is not its gold, it’s not its diamonds, but it is its women working together beyond the limitation of borders and political diplomacy to create economic solutions that are viable for our people.”



Mel Tomlinson.JPG Louise.jpg
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