A Global Mandate to Support African Female Entrepreneurs Amid COVID-19

June 1, 2020

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the globe, businesses worldwide are facing unprecedented challenges. None more so than small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) owned by female entrepreneurs in Africa. 

According to the World Bank, women-owned businesses across Africa have historically been disadvantaged in accessing support to grow their businesses. These disadvantages are further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with women entrepreneurs across the continent struggling to stay in business in the midst of shutdowns in various sectors. It is estimated that this will worsen as employment and revenues decline.

“I cannot afford to stay at home and not feed my children,” said a local food seller in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, in a CNN article

“I know it is risky to be out here, but if I don’t come out to find food for my family, we will die of hunger faster than the virus can kill us.”

Women are indeed at a higher risk as they are more likely to engage in the informal sector and are often hardest hit economically due to lost wages. With school closures and household isolation, their roles would shift to unpaid ones like child and homecare. As a result, lifetime earnings may never recover, leading to an increase in the financial gap between men and women. 

With one-third of all SMEs in Africa registered to women, it is imperative that they receive enough support and training to not only respond to this crisis but also recover and bounce back.  

Policymakers and international organizations, like the World Economic Forum, the European Commission, and the Africa Development Bank are working to address the critical economic challenges facing the regions and looking at policy options to build economic resilience. According to World Bank research, boosting women’s productivity, earnings, and market inclusion will accelerate economic recovery.

Access to critical resources like skills training, financial support, and business networks will lift the binding constraints to women’s empowerment. 

Empowered Women Empower Others

When women learn how to build sustainable and resilient businesses, the rise in their economic and social power is evident. They become changemakers who are advocates in empowering economies and communities. 

Cameroonian-born Rebecca Enonchong, one of the most successful and dynamic African entrepreneurs in technology, is leveraging her influence to support entrepreneurs and low-income earners amid the COVID pandemic. When Kenya’s telecom operator, Safaricom, announced a move to temporarily waive fees for ‘person to person’ transactions of less than Ksh 1,000 ($10), it caught the attention of the rest of the continent. Rebecca, CEO of Cameroon-based AppsTech and incubator ActivSpaces, and member of the AWEC Board of Stewards, took to Twitter to appeal for MTN Cameroon to remove mobile money transaction charges in the country.  In just a few hours, MTN Cameroon responded by suspending payments for amounts up to 20,000 FCFAs ($33). 

“We’re in an unprecedented situation,” said Enonchong. “I think that having mobile money operators lower or eliminate transaction rates will save lives. It’s the right thing to do… I just hope the others follow suit.”

Stories like these are a true example of the power that lies in the hands of women and their ability to promote change, not only for themselves, but for citizens worldwide. 

AWEC Entrepreneurs Rising to the Challenge

Both AWEC’s new cohort of 200 female entrepreneurs representing 41 countries and its network of 400 alumnae have experienced pandemic-related challenges and spirit-lifting camaraderie from their AWEC network. Now more than ever, African women entrepreneurs need a supportive network of like-minded ladies who are pivoting to save their businesses and positively impact their communities. 

Examples of ingenuity and resiliency that AWEC has seen in the past months include:

  • Alumna Hilya Nghiwete found her lodge in rural Namibia suddenly empty of tourists and her community cut off from normal food suppliers, so she shifted her staff to bake bread and sell it within their local market
  • Adam Touray from Gambia, a Cohort 3 Fellow, credits the first AWEC Live Session on Innovation and Ideation led by Dr. Olayinka David-West of Lagos Business School with inspiring her decision to collaborate with a local courier company to deliver client orders. She goes on to describe: “Not only that, I have reached out to other companies offering the delivery service for them working with the same courier on a percentage. This has generated extra income for our Health and Beauty Store. I am now looking at ways to create online classes with my [cosmetology] students.” 
  • In Uganda, Cohort 3 member Rita Sabiti, the Founder of Muvule Academy, a children’s kindergarten, also had to find a new way to offer her services after closing down her business: “Instead of allowing this to get me down, I launched our lessons online. I had to think creatively. We now offer Zoom music classes, and teach our students via WhatsApp and Google meet. It is working well. And the best part is, the parents see the value and the effort and are continuing to pay school fees!!!”

AWEC’s mission is to empower African female entrepreneurs to build resilient businesses and unlock their potential to become catalysts for change. Despite the current challenges, we remain focused on helping them to withstand today’s hardships and position themselves for success in the future. To support our dynamic cohort of entrepreneurs, click here.

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