Across sub-Saharan Africa, ambitious women are unleashing their potential by starting businesses. Tanzeel Akhtar talks to successful female entrepreneurs from Nigeria and South Africa to find out about their achievements and discover what motivates them.

Female entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa is rising rapidly, with a number of ambitious women defying the odds, going solo and unleashing their potential.

In an increasingly interconnected world, the rise in technology-based businesses is playing a crucial role in narrowing the gender gap and pushing female entrepreneurship forward.

As national economies face stiff competition for specialist market skills and resources, a number of startups are drawing international interest.

There are also a number of global initiatives supporting and propelling female-run businesses on the continent.

Speaking in March at a dinner held by SheMeansBusiness, an initiative designed to empower female entrepreneurs across Nigeria, Facebook’s policy programmes head in Africa, Sherry Dzinoreva, said that the company would be intensifying its female entrepreneurship training.

But despite the launch of such initiatives there are still a number of challenges women need to overcome.

Across Africa, women are prevented from pursuing a career in business through overt and hidden discriminatory practices.

In sub-Saharan Africa, at least 40% of the labour force is female, according to the Pew Research Centre.

However, 74% of women’s non-agricultural employment is informal, in contrast with 61% for men.

In the private sector, African women hold 23% of positions at executive committee level and just 5% of CEO-level jobs, according to McKinsey.

Access to capital and exclusion from male dominated business networks constrain women’s participation in business.

Arduous journey

Blessing Ijoma is a 27-year-old business developer and the co-founder of Rucove, an agriculture and e-commerce business based in Aba, Nigeria.

Ijoma was admitted to the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which was launched by then US President Barack Obama in 2010 to invest in the next generation of African leaders.

The initiative provided her with enterprise training and helped her to meet like-minded entrepreneurs.

She then went on to build Rucove, which connects buyers and suppliers, importers and exporters of agro produce.

The Rucove platform aims to empower African farmers and push agricultural suppliers to be more productive.

Her journey has been long and arduous. Ijoma describes the difficulties she faced accessing the internet in public cafés as she grew up.

“While running errands I spotted an internet café and went in to inquire how I can learn to operate a computer.

I was fascinated when I saw many computers. We weren’t taught about computers in school. So, I started saving for my training,” explains Ijoma.

She then applied to the Michael Okpara University to study computer science and was accepted.

When she started her computer training programme, she continued to go to an internet café, but it was often visited by police on the lookout for scam artists.

Her parents warned her to stay away from the café, but Ijoma persisted.

“[Police checks and harassment] continued until I finished my training and learned major programming languages, design skills online and started a freelance career.

“I was able to save enough from my freelance business to buy a laptop, internet broadband and started freelancing from home at the age of 19,” explains Ijoma.

She applied for initiatives to support her passions. “[When] our school went on strike, I made use of that opportunity to apply for YALI and got admitted into their one-month entrepreneurship training,” says Ijoma.

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