Lionesses of Africa: unlocking the continent’s full potential of women entrepreneurship
Ten highly successful female African entrepreneurs gathered in The Hague this week, united in a business network called Lionesses of Africa. In front of investors, ambassadors, key public and private decision makers, media and each other, these women shared their success stories, lessons learned, and above all sought to scale up their business: ‘We want to become the IKEA of Africa!’
Lionesses of Africa is a network of 1,7 million women entrepreneurs across all 54 African countries and the African diaspora. Its mission: empowering African women in business. And with good reason, as the number of women in Africa starting their own business has seen tremendous growth over recent years: approximately 36% percent of entrepreneurs on the continent are women.
Networking events hosted by Lionesses of Africa, their so called Start-Up Night Africa events, have a clear objective, says Lionesses of Africa founder and CEO, Melanie Hawken. ‘We want to stimulate investment connections, global market access, strategic partnerships and provide collaboration opportunities for high-growth women entrepreneurs from our community. When they succeed, they provide line of sight to the thousands of other women entrepreneurs who follow in their footsteps. The outcome is that successful women entrepreneurs become active agents of change in Africa, participating directly in shaping their future.'
One of the entrepreneurs present in The Hague was Jane Maigua, founder and managing director of Exotic EPZ, a Kenyan company that processes and exports macadamia nuts. She founded her company in 2017 with two other women and knows the value of a dollar invested in a female-run business, as well as the challenges African women face when carving out their path in the business world.
Maigua says: ‘It all starts with gender inequality. Many women stay at home with their families and do not own any land or assets, which causes them to miss out on educational and financial opportunities. Especially in agriculture, the sector my company acts in, women are at the bottom of the pyramid, so to speak. They are the ones doing the manual work on the fields, whereas the better jobs are almost always occupied by men.’
Fighting the odds
Maigua has dedicated herself to fighting these odds, which is why she was determined to start her business with other women. ‘We wanted to demonstrate that women can be business leaders, and grow a company from scratch.’ In her entrepreneurial journey, Maigua was not only motivated by female empowerment, but also by her own past.
Her parents were farmers in rural Kenya, and Maigua noticed early on that it was a challenge for them to get their products to market. Fast forward to 2023, this is one of the pillars her business is built on. ‘We believe in socio-economic growth by paying farmers a competitive price for their products and by buying directly from them and not from intermediates.’
Impact on investment
Maigua’s example speaks volumes when it comes to female entrepreneurship. An investment in a female run business often leads to jobs and societal impact, as Exotic EPZ shows. The company sources nuts from more than 9.000 farmers, and employs over 180 people. 85% of the staff are women. The company has grown from almost nothing in 2018, to a value of 3.8 million dollars in 2022. And Kenya is not where it ends for Exotic EPZ. ‘We already export to the USA, China and Europe, with the Netherlands being one of the countries we first started exporting to’, she says.
Maigua is looking for a capital investment of 7.5 million dollars. She explains: ‘We want to build our own factory. Right now we lease a property, but we have covered pretty much all the ground we can with that building. We want to build a factory closer to the farmers, so we can reach over 10.000 of them and put money in their pockets.’
The IKEA from Africa
Networks like Lionesses of Africa are instrumental to the growth of female entrepreneurship, says Jumoke Dada. She is the founder and CEO of Taeillo, a Nigerian based online retailer of furniture with African inspired design. She feels the Lionesses help change the narrative about women in business, but certainly also about Africa as a whole. Triggered by a comment she heard years ago, she feels strongly about changing this narrative herself. ‘I was at a conference, and heard foreign designers say that Africans are consumers more than we are producers. That comment struck me, and I felt I could do something about that.’ Dada identifies funding as one of the biggest obstacles during her early years in business. ‘Africa is still largely patriarchal, so when it comes to funding women-led businesses there are a lot of stereotypes to fight. I cannot tell you how often I heard: ‘She’s too young, she will not pay back the loans, she will not provide return on investment.’ That is why she stresses the importance of female entrepreneurs acting as investors as well. Dada: ‘Last year we raised 2,5 million dollars from an investment fund run by women. That was very encouraging. It is no surprise to me that most women who have been able to successfully grow their business, are backed by other women.’
For Taeillo, the sky is the limit as far as Dada is concerned. ‘From 2018 until today, we have generated about 3 million dollars in revenue. We are operating in Nigeria and Kenya, but our vision is bigger than that. We want to become the IKEA of Africa!’
Her presence in The Netherlands is centered around forming strategic partnerships, she says. ‘We are currently mainly looking for furniture companies to join us in our journey of continuous growth.’
Unlocking Africa’s potential
It is no coincidence that the Lionesses hosted their Start-Up Night Africa in The Hague. Not only did the organization recently open up its first European office in the city, the Netherlands is also firmly committed to stimulating female entrepreneurship in Africa. For that reason, minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Liesje Schreinemacher was more than happy to join the Lionesses for an evening of networking. ‘These are exciting times for private sector development in Africa. And especially for female entrepreneurs. We support their work passionately’, she said during her keynote speech. ‘We believe good relationships with African partners are key. This is a cornerstone of our Africa-strategy, which affirms our commitment to supporting female entrepreneurs in Africa. Empowering these women is vital in unlocking the continent’s full potential, now and in the future.’
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