Recently there has been significant attention in the media devoted to the rise of entrepreneurship in East Africa. All over the world business leaders are beginning to realize that many African nations—including Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya— are finally on track to become powerful forces in the global economy in coming years.
What may come as a surprise is that many of the entrepreneurs who are changing the face of African business are women.
We recently had a conversation with Winnie Ouko, who is Co-founder and Director of Lattice Consulting, and partner of Income|Outcome in Kenya. Lattice Consulting provides business strategy and financial expertise to medium and large institutions. Although Lattice is run almost entirely by women, they try not to position themselves as a “woman run” firm—rather, they’re simply an excellent firm.
Ouko and her colleagues at Lattice are inspired by the increasing conversation about women in business on a global scale. As East Africa’s economy grows, there are more women in high-level management and more women founding and managing very successful enterprises.
Women want to add their voices to the conversation, and Ouko is no exception. Here are some of the things we learned from her about the challenges and advantages to being a “lioness” in the rapidly changing business landscape of East Africa.
Challenges for Women Entrepreneurs
As you probably expect, there are a number of unique struggles that women—particularly in the developing world—might face when they enter into high-level business.
First, there is inescapably an inherent bias towards men. This probably sounds familiar to Americans who are acquainted with the so-called “glass ceiling” that women encounter in the workforce. In developing countries, particularly in patriarchal societies, the barriers are even higher and stronger. Women have to work extremely hard to break through established norms and to develop professional networks that will help them succeed.
Women in business also have to overcome unfair presuppositions about female leadership. They may have to go to extraordinary lengths to earn the basic level of respect that men in the same positions would automatically receive, simply because of gender stereotypes.
For African women in particular, the difficulty of obtaining credit can be a huge barrier to success. In Kenya, for example, most lines of credit are based on collateral. Because the society is still highly patriarchal, women usually don’t have assets in their name. Ouko’s hope is that this obstacle will diminish as society modernizes and as women continue to succeed and inspire worldwide conversation about the potential of female entrepreneurs.
Strengths and Advantages for Female Leaders
Even though there are obstacles to the success of female entrepreneurs, women certainly have unique skills to bring to the table and an important voice in the “big picture” conversation.
Research has shown that in all regions of the world, women have stronger repayment profiles than men. When banks give loans to women, repayment rates are much higher than average, and defaults are almost nonexistent.
What does this mean? Perhaps that women, on the whole, are more conscientious and trustworthy than men. Or perhaps it is an indication of what women are capable of when given opportunities.
Women are also eager to learn and develop their business acumen. For example, World Bank provides many educational resources for businesspeople. When they offer targeted programs for women as part of the Growth Oriented Women Entrepreneurs project, the response is overwhelming.
It isn’t just that attendance is high at GOWE programs. There’s a very unique dynamic that emerges; an atmosphere of openness and humility, where all have something to learn and all have something to offer. The networking that takes place is more effective, and the overall program has much more impact than an ordinary educational program.
Breaking the Mold: Two Success Stories
Tabitha Karanja is one of East Africa’s most successful female entrepreneurs. She is the founder and CEO of Keroche Breweries, Ltd, which has become a formidable force in the Kenyan economy and a surprise challenger to East African Breweries.
According to this article by Charles Wachira for BloombergBusiness, Keroche is expanding its production capacity by more than tenfold in 2015 and plans to list on the local stock exchange in the next five years. They are on track to double their share of the market within the next two years.
Not only is Keroche successful on paper, they are the first alcoholic beverage producer to be wholly owned and operated by an indigenous Kenyan—and a woman, at that! Tabitha Karanja is an innovator and an inspiration to women around the world.
Esther Passaris is another woman who is changing the face of entrepreneurship in East Africa. A quick google search makes it clear that being a successful businesswoman—especially in the developing world—is not an easy undertaking. Passaris has become a controversial political figure, and has been a recipient of crass sexist attacks on more than one occasion.
Passaris became famous after founding Adopt a Light; a project that is both entrepreneurial and humanitarian. She was burdened by staggering crime rates in the slums of Nairobi and devised a surprisingly simple solution; street lights.
She worked out a deal with the city government to repair street lights in poor, dangerous neighborhoods in exchange for advertising rights on those light poles. Not only did the advertising revenue make her financially successful, the project significantly decreased rates of violent crime and sexual assault in Nairobi.
These are just a few of the incredible stories that are developing before our eyes in Kenya and other African nations. If you’d like to read more about inspiring African businesswomen, check out Lionesses of Africa.
Ouko’s message is this: Women are just as competent as men and deserve a place in high-level business. Maybe people experience women in leadership differently, but that doesn’t mean that the quality of the work or the innovation is compromised—not by any stretch of the imagination.
Are you a female entrepreneur? Inspire us by sharing your story in the comments below!