[INTERVIEW]: This is a great time to be a woman entrepreneur, says activist

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Hawken during the interview last week. (Teddy Kamanzi)

Having spent 35 years of her career in the field of communication, publishing and digital media, Melanie Hawken decided to take a different path altogether—harnessing her communications experience to pull the audience of African women entrepreneurs. She founded a women entrepreneurs’ think-tank, ‘Lionesses of Africa’. Within a year, the organisation has managed to reach over 100,000 inspirational women entrepreneurs from across the continent. The target is to assist one million African women entrepreneurs to unlock their business potentials by 2018. During the recent Global Women’s summit in Kigali, Hawken talked to The New Times’ Athan Tashobya about her ambitions to share, inspire and connect women entrepreneurs across Africa and also weighed in on what Rwanda’s women empowerment policies mean to the continent.

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What has been your definitive lesson from the just-concluded Global Women’s Summit in Kigali?

From the outset, I would have to say that my biggest personal take-out from this truly inspirational event is that Rwanda is well and truly leading the continent when it comes to supporting the growth and development of women in general, and women entrepreneurs in particular.

This is an amazing time to be a woman in Rwanda. In fact, it’s a privilege to have been in the country at this particular time as it has recently been declared the best place to be a woman in Africa by the Global Gender Gap Report.

So, the country is not only providing a great example to the rest of the continent, but, today, Rwanda ranks sixth in the world in terms of closing gender gaps, with only Scandinavian countries ranking above it. The country has shown real leadership in such areas as economic opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health.

This is a country showing the rest of the world how things should be done for women, and for that, I applaud everyone in the country who is working tirelessly to champion women’s cause.

This is also a great time to be a woman entrepreneur in Africa, and as we are entering the second half of what has been officially designated as The Decade of the Woman Entrepreneur in Africa, Rwanda’s women entrepreneurs need to make it count!

Access to finance remains a challenge toward achieving women economic empowerment. What should be done to close the gap?

There’s a great quote by Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She says, “If you invest in a girl or a woman, you are investing in everybody else.” How true that is!

In the early days of the social impact movement, women and girls were seen more as programme beneficiaries, rather than financial movers and shakers. But that is no longer the case.

Social lenders changed their view when they realised that focusing initiatives like micro-finance lending on women turned out to be the most effective way to make whole communities more prosperous. There is increasing recognition that impact investing, with a specific focus on empowering women, is a powerful catalyst for both economic gain and positive social change.

The launch of new and dedicated Women’s funds exemplify a unique social change model, demonstrating that investing in women- owned businesses achieves lasting returns for families, communities and nations. This gender lens investment model works because the focus for that investment is on women’s own solutions to critical challenges.

Put simply, investing in women is good for all of us. Whether the goal is to lift women and girls out of poverty, or bolster the success of female entrepreneurs, the data bears out that companies perform better and communities are stronger when women participate fully. The portfolios of all investors – institutions, families, men and women – would benefit by selecting investments with a gender lens.

Most women lack adequate skills to effectively defend their projects in banks or to execute their business proposals. What do you think should be done to improve capacities of women in business?

There is no doubt that one of the biggest challenges facing women entrepreneurs is how to best present their businesses and projects to potential investors and customers, knowing how to make powerful connections, and understanding what investors and customers want and need to see for their decision-making.

There needs to be a greater focus on providing these inspirational and talented women entrepreneurs with the specialist skills development training in specific areas such as business strategic planning, financial management, administration, marketing and communication, and supply chain management, to name but a few.

Any women entrepreneur needs to have solid business management skills to succeed, combined with critical mentorship from established women entrepreneurs who understand the challenges of building a business from scratch, and then growing that business for it to reach its full potential.

Reports indicate that nine out of 10 women in sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in informal sector. What can be done to change this trend?

Africa is the continent of female entrepreneurs – it leads the world in female entrepreneurship – and this trend is set to rise on the back of a new found confidence amongst women of the continent.

The numbers speak for themselves. 224 million women are running business and impacting the global economy, according to the most recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM). 50 per cent of all enterprises in Africa are women owned, according to the World Bank.

Twenty-five per cent of Africa’s women have set up their own businesses, the highest rate on the planet! It’s clear, women’s entrepreneurship has reached a tipping point. This is not a passing fad. It’s a fundamental economic force that will reshape the economies of Africa and the world. This is a market worthy of attention by financiers and policy makers alike.

However, the nations in Africa that stand to gain the most from this trend are those that are building supportive structures and entrepreneurial ecosystems that allow for women to progress from survivalist entrepreneurship to opportunity entrepreneurship. The nations that will win are those that will embrace this philosophy.

Rwanda is a shining example of such a nation, one that is putting in place an entrepreneurial eco-system that can encourage women to take their businesses or solo micro-enterprises to the next level and, as a result, supporting the growth of the country as a whole.

The success factor will come when enough women step up to the plate and work to realise their true entrepreneurial potential, or when young women leave school and university and see entrepreneurship as a destination of choice to fulfill their economic and personal dreams.

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A woman explains the benefits of ‘Igiceri’ savings during the celebration of the International Women’s Day in Nduba Sector, Gasabo District, last week. (Doreen Umutesi)

Lionesses of Africa’s mission is to reach and assist one million underserved African women entrepreneurs by 2018. Isn’t this rather being too ambitious?

I believe that if you want to make a positive contribution to supporting the growth and development of women entrepreneurs across the African continent, then you need to think big and act big in order to make the desired impact.

Since we officially launched Lionesses of Africa just over a year ago, we have built a supportive community of over 100,000 women entrepreneurs across the continent, and are growing rapidly.

On current trajectory, we will have a quarter of a million women entrepreneurs in our network by the end of this year - 2016.

And, given the rollout of our pan-African networking and event programme for women entrepreneurs which will be criss-crossing the continent, combined with our powerful range of communication and engagement tools, from dedicated podcast radio and online TV channels, to digital publishing and mentoring programmes, we have some powerful ways of engaging and supporting hundreds of thousands of women entrepreneurs each day.

So, we are confident of being able to reach our target, realise our vision, and make a positive difference to the lives of 1 million women entrepreneurs across the African continent by 2018.

What do you think are the most pressing hindrances for women to thrive in business?

Speaking to the over 100,000 women entrepreneurs in the Lionesses of Africa community each day, and meeting them in person in their businesses and at the regular networking events, there are a number of challenges and barriers to success that are impeding their growth and development.

The two most commonly shared hindrances are access to finance, and access to markets.

For many women entrepreneurs, getting banks and other financial institutions to positively consider their businesses for funding is extremely tough, and the barriers to entry are often substantial. As a result, all too often their ability to fully realise the potential of those businesses is curtailed.

Women entrepreneurs in Africa need to be given a greater level of support and assistance in accessing affordable and effective funding mechanisms for their businesses, combined with advice and expertise in how to manage that funding in order for it to achieve the desired results.

Going hand-in-hand with that greater access to funding is the need to assist women entrepreneurs in Africa with the knowledge and expertise in how to access new markets, both at home and abroad. More specialist training and incubation is needed to assist women entrepreneurs to better market and package their businesses, enabling them to effectively compete in their chosen marketplaces.

Finally, greater support needs to be provided to women entrepreneurs in Africa to open up trading opportunities with global markets, to be able to access new markets, and to transact across the borders more effectively. This requires specialist expertise and training on an ongoing basis if the full potential of women owned businesses is to be realised.

You seek to provide the support, tools and inspiration needed to ensure that the next generation of women-led businesses in Africa flourish and fulfill their potential. What is your source of funding?

Since Lionesses of Africa’s soft launch on the first ever Global Women’s Entrepreneurship Day on November 19, 2014, and following the official launch of this exciting social enterprise on January 1, 2015, the initiative has been fully self-funded.

It is only since January 2016, with the incorporation of Lionesses of Africa as a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC) in the US, that a supporting global commercial strategy has been implemented.

As a result, a number of prestigious global impact partners are now coming on board to help realise the full potential of the Lionesses of Africa enterprise across the African continent, positively impacting the lives and businesses of thousands of women entrepreneurs.

One of the first partner to be announced this year was the Standard Bank Group, which has come on board to support the roll-out of the Lioness Lean in event programme which will see 24 inspirational networking and information sharing events taking place in South Africa and in other selected African countries over the next 12 months.

Over the coming year, Lionesses of Africa will be looking to partner with other companies and organisations who share a commitment to making a difference in the lives and future prosperity of women entrepreneurs and their businesses across the African continent.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw