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Women Entrepreneurs Are On The Rise And Are Bolstering The Expansion Of E-commerce In SA

Despite varying challenges, during the Covid-19 pandemic years and in periods before, there has been an impressive upsurge in women entrepreneurs in South Africa. In fact, a study by Heavy Chef revealed that women are leading the charge behind the current E-commerce boom in the country. 

According to the report, over 60% of the country’s E-commerce companies were founded and are headed up by women. As a panel of experts at the recent Global Startup Awards Africa concluded, “women are #winning”. 

In a number of ways,” says Regan Adams, CEO of RCS – the consumer finance arm of international banking group, BNP Paribas, “E-commerce has served to level the playing fields, allowing small retail players to take on larger and more established brands. Today, women can start a business with little more than a laptop. This move towards the democratisiation of industry, driven by digital technology, is accelerating the opportunity for women innovators to take their place amongst the country’s leading entrepreneurs.”

However, the positive moves forward effected by E-commerce have not dissolved the many challenges women entrepreneurs face. Gender inequalities relating to access of funding continue to present a significant hurdle. This was one of the key topics the panel of experts discussed at the recent Global Startup Awards Africa, which was sponsored and moderated by LevelUp – a business “inspirator” programme launched by RCS in partnership with social enterprise, Tsiba. 

Some of the harsh realities presented included the fact that more than 50% of businesses in Africa are built by women. And yet across the continent, just 16% of funding goes to women-owned startups. In South Africa, this percentage is marginally better at 19% but is still indicative of the gaping gender gap in investing.

And while Beverley Basson, lead designer of the LevelUp curriculum, acknowledges the very real need for women entrepreneurs to be upskilled and trained through mentorship and educational initiatives, she argues that what most women need is simply, “someone who believes in them.” 

In particular, Basson directs her appeal to investors who have the funding and capacity to turn the tide against the fact that women entrepreneurs are significantly under-capitalised in South Africa. 

Referencing the most recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report, Basson explains that: “Gender parity among South African entrepreneurs will have far-reaching benefits for the local and global economy. Women entrepreneurs will play a key role in South Africa’s post-pandemic economic recovery and contribute to interconnected issues such as the urgent need for job creation.”

Words of inspiration from four SA women entrepreneurs 

Driven by a strong conviction that supporting and empowering women entrepreneurs in South Africa should be a national imperative, Basson has worked extensively with the women-owned businesses that have participated in this year’s LevelUp programme. The 2022 cohorts included a blend of businesses spanning sectors like energy, wellness and technology. 

Faith Mokgalaka, founder of Puno Greenery, a LevelUp programme participant, encourages aspiring businesswomen to see themselves as part of a bigger picture: “As emerging entrepreneurs, we pass the baton onto the next generation of women who are looking to disrupt their industries. We have a responsibility to change the system from the inside through strategic and systematic action, so that we can pave the way for our sisters, friends and children.”

“Turn obstacles into opportunities,” is the advice of Sasha Knott, owner of JobCrystal, an artificial intelligence and recruitment technology start-up which just took the runner up spot for Best Technology Start Up at Africa Tech Week. Knott has always been up to the task of building a successful venture in a male-dominated industry. In the beginning of her career, she grappled with stereotypical notions that women in boardrooms were simply there to “take minutes,” but used this as a stepping-stone to build connections with decision-makers and ultimately grow her career.

Sharing this same sentiment is Winnie McHenry, founder of Upcycle, who struggled during her business’ formative years, to convince suppliers and clients that waste could become a viable alternative to new materials in the mass production environment. “When I spoke to men about handmade products from waste, they automatically pictured a woman behind a sewing machine, making a dress. It has taken years of hard work and persistence to unravel these stereotypical gender archetypes, but I am determined to do my part in driving change.”

Lastly, are the words of Puseletso Moiomogale, founder of the Mind Retirement Institute, a personal development and corporate wellness service provider. 

As she concludes: “Women entrepreneurs need to own their power and understand their role in contributing to economic growth, innovation, creative and productivity. We need to inspire other women to become business owners and strive for financial independence. You empower a woman, you empower a nation.”