Starting and growing a business as a female entrepreneur in a developing country hasn’t been all rosy – not that anybody said it would. Growing up in an environment where males were seen as "perfect" for business didn’t help at all. The female folks were seen more as homemakers who should channel their mental and physical energy towards building homes rather than businesses.
In the part of Africa where I come from, some families encourage their daughters to pick up white-collar jobs after finishing college rather than venture into business. Many African men would rather have their wives behind the desks in offices than see them explore their entrepreneurial abilities.
My struggles as a female entrepreneur in Africa came with many challenges but also many lessons. Below are four core challenges faced by female entrepreneurs in my part of the world.
Limited access to funding
When I finished college, I tried to give life to the small business I had at the time. I sought funds from relations that I knew were capable to help; but I couldn’t get any because I was a woman. I drafted a good loan agreement, but they believed that business isn’t a woman’s thing. They obviously didn’t picture a woman running the idea I had. Some even said I should give my male cousin the idea to run with.
An uncle of mine was even ready to fix me up in a firm where I would earn a salary and forget I ever wanted to become an entrepreneur. Financial institutions back then didn’t help, and starting a business was cumbersome to achieve. These financial institutions weren’t as quick to grant loans to female entrepreneurs as they were to male entrepreneurs, since men were seen as better risk takers and more likely to succeed.
This is how many female entrepreneurs’ dreams were diverted simply because of their gender. A study by the African Development Bank found that the financing gap for women in Sub-Sahara Africa is estimated to be $20 billion, and younger women struggle the most.
Getting capital isn’t easy for anyone, just that females were sidelined than their male counterparts. One’s gender should not be a consideration to how successful a business can become. Be it male or female, as long as that person has the passion and is ready to pay the price, that’s all that should matter.
The cultures and beliefs we were raised with have robbed many females of entrepreneurship opportunities. As funny as it may sound, a large part of the African society still believes a woman’s place is "in the kitchen," thereby causing these young women to self-limit themselves, making them believe that only men can succeed as entrepreneurs.
In a society where men see successful business women as threats that wouldn’t be capable of making good wives and mothers, I would say that these beliefs are crippling the entrepreneur in some women. You are either a successful businesswoman, or you are a successful mother. The norms here don’t believe that women can be both. But women like Folorunsho Alakija and Ibukun Awosika have proven this wrong and have not only made impact in the business world, but also in the business of motherhood.
I can still remember many relationships that went south because I didn’t want to conform to the norms held by these men. Some would seem okay with it at first but would later back out because the society didn’t picture their partners as the perfect African wife who would stay at home, look after the kids and help live their husbands’ dreams.
Fear of the male counterparts
In this part of the world, if you are not strong-willed enough, you are likely to catch the “male dominance” fever. Many aspiring female entrepreneurs have chickened out because of the male bullies in their industry.
It takes courage to pull off a business you’ve already been told you would fail simply because of your gender. If it were about you being incompetent, it would have been understandable at least. The male counterparts in my line of business would rather lose their customers to their fellow male competitors than to a lady.
All they said could have derailed me, but it served as means of motivation. I didn’t create room for intimidation, was bent on making my business work and proving to those male competitors that’s it’s about time they give women some credit.
Lack of support networks
You are your greatest motivator. But having an experienced entrepreneur as a mentor would really go a long way in averting many business mistakes. Business is all about decision-making, and having someone who has made many decisions and succeeded while doing so is worth having close.
Unlike their male counterparts, female entrepreneurs here have difficulty in getting the right mentors. However, this challenge is gradually decreasing because many successful female entrepreneurs and organizations are doing what they can to inspire female entrepreneurship in Africa. Groups seeking to inspire and propel female entrepreneurs have emerged in recent times, but they haven’t really done enough.
Succeeding as an entrepreneur in this part of the world takes more from women than it does from men. You have to be determined, pay deaf ears to the norms and be ready to walk through your journey with your head held hight, not ready to accept anything less than a breakthrough.