How female-led tech businesses are transforming Africa

The continent’s women business owners are increasingly making their presence felt in the field of technology. Vic Motune spoke to three leading female business owners about their success, and the obstacles they still face

POSITIVE TREND: Africa has seen a huge rise in the number of women entrepreneur and tech companies started by women

THE NUMBERS of female entrepreneurs in Africa is rising rapidly according to recent statistics. 

And the fact that many of these women are unleashing their potential and starting businesses related to technology has seen this trend hailed as one that holds great promise for the continent’s future. 

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) 2016/17 Women’s Report female entrepreneurship rates in Sub-Saharan Africa are the highest in the world.

Opportunity for growth

The report found that women’s entrepreneurial activity globally was up 10 per cent, with Africa leading the way, where 25.9 per cent of the female adult population is engaged in early-stage entrepreneurial activity.

While a positive trend observers say that female entrepreneurs face hurdles that men do not. 

In many countries in Africa, most female-led enterprises have little opportunity for growth. 

Recognising these trends, the UK government has decided to back Africa’s female entrepreneurs. 

Supporting female entrepreneurs

The new plans will provide support female entrepreneurs to secure more investment through specialist business training, creating up to 3000 more jobs and aim to reduce inequality in the workplace.

At the summit Vic Motune spoke to three female entrepreneurs about the opportunities open to them and how they deal with the challenges they face. 

ELIZABETH NYEKO – MODULARITY GRID

‘In a place like Uganda, there are more female entrepreneurs than male ones’ says Modularity Grid founder Elizabeth Nyeko

As the founder and CEO of Modularity Grid, a London-based startup, Elizabeth Nyeko’s passion is finding a solution to one of Africa’s key development challenges: how to bring affordable efficient electricity to rural communities.

Her company builds technologies to improve small-scale electricity generation and distribution systems that power homes and businesses in areas which national governments on the continent find too expensive to cover with the national grid. 

The Oxford graduate is also the co-founder of Mandulis Energy which builds biomass-fired mini-grids in Uganda. 

Lack of access to electricity

One in five people in the world don’t have access to electricity and that was a challenge I wanted to take on” she said. It’s a problem that has huge impacts on health, on education, really wide reaching impacts on people’s ability to earn money and improve their livelihoods. 

“Access to energy is not just an important sustainable development goal, it has an impact on all of the other sustainable goals.

“So when I founded my company and Mandulis Energy with my brother Peter who’s an aerospace engineer we realised we had the technical skills needed to tackle this challenge and it also meant something personally to us as well.

CHALLENGE: Nyeko founded another company, Mandulis Energy with her brother Peter

“If we can bring down the cost of electricity so that people can have access to reliable and affordable power this can drive the kinds of activities needed to drive sustainable development and local economic development in these countries.”

Statistics are pointing to the growing importance of female entrepreneurs in Africa. Are you seeing this in your own experience?

“There’s huge amounts of progress. For example, in a place like Uganda, there are more women entrepreneurs than male ones.

“Lots of small businesses are run by women. What the banks are now finding when they start giving out loans is that the creditworthiness of the women they give out loans to are increasingly higher than men because they make sure they pay back their loans.

Lots of small businesses are run by women. Banks are now finding that the creditworthiness of the women they give out loans to is increasingly higher than men

 
Elizabeth Nyeko – Modularity Grid

“People are beginning to see the numbers and that women entrepreneurs are worth supporting and that they should be doing more around supporting women in business.”

Despite their success are there still challenges faced by women entrepreneurs, especially in your field of engineering?

“Whether it’s Africa, whether it’s the UK it’s exactly the same…too few women are involved in engineering which makes it quite challenging when you’re going out and trying to pitch a completely new piece of technology or when you’re trying to pitch a new idea that involves the use of a proven technology. People go ‘do you really know what you’re talking about?’

“And what you find is that when you start your pitch, you have to start with your credentials and why you’re qualified  whereas a man can just walk into a room and start talking about the idea he wants to present and selling the big vision.”

The UK government has said it wants to back female entrepreneurs like yourself. Are you encouraged by this?

“UK Aid can be particularly helpful to shift the narrative from aid to investment, from aid to trade and help set up the kinds of businesses that can help have a tangible impact on people’s day to day lives.

DR FUMNI ADEWARA – MOBIHEALTH

PASSION: Dr Funmi Adewara

Dr Fumni Adewara, a Cambridge trained NHS physician and bioscience entrepreneur is the founder and CEO of MobiHealth. 

Before developing her skills in the UK, she initially trained in Nigeria at the University of Ibadan.

Digital healthcare

Mobihealth is an innovative telemedicine and digital healthcare platform with a mission to make affordable quality healthcare accessible to people in Nigeria, with plans to incorporate the business in Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Kenya. 

Through the mobile phone app, the company provides a complete care package to patients who can afford to pay a monthly fee of between $10 and $27.

This includes video consultations, quality diagnostic tests, access to genuine medications, and specialist referrals. Poorer patients who may not have smartphones are served by clinics that travel to rural communities and connect to Mobihealth’s doctor network. 

What inspired the creation of Mobihealth?

“One of the biggest healthcare challenges is the shortages of doctors. If you look at the population of Nigeria we have a 200 million population, a similar population size to America which has 1.2 million doctors. However Nigeria has only 72, 000 registered doctors.  

DETERMINED: Dr Funmi Adewara is using technology to fill key gaps in Nigeria’s healthcare system

“But there’s even more bad news in that 50 per cent of them are outside the country.

“And if you were to interview the doctors that are left behind, nine out of every them want to leave.

Mobile technology adoption

“However Africa is one of the fastest growing markets in mobile technology adoption. If you were to look at Nigeria alone we have nearly 90 per cent mobile penetration.

“It’s unacceptable that anybody should die from preventable causes and technology can change this narrative. And this is what drives my passion.”

You’ve been praised for being one of a new generation of African female entrepreneurs in the field of technology. Are you seeing other women coming through?

“There’s been a lot of change recently and you can see that Africa is the only continent where female entrepreneurs are blazing the trail.

“When you look at tech, people still look at tech as the exclusive preserve for a male child and women are not actually supported or encouraged to go into that field.

Positive changes

“That is now changing because people are seeing the benefits of having girls involved in the sector but there is still much room for change and growth.

I know of many other female entrepreneurs who are using technology to scale up their business

Dr Funmi Adewara, founder and CEO of MobiHealth

“I know of many other female entrepreneurs who are using technology to scale up their business. We’re still very far away but there are positive changes.”

The UK government has spoken of its desire to back female entrepreneurs in Africa, especially those heading technology businesses. Do you welcome this?

“The UK Africa Investment Summit is so important because it showcases the endless possibilities that are there in Africa and especially in African women. 

“We have delivered more revenue, more growth, and we are more  likely to invest our profits into the economy That is why it worth backing female entrepreneurs.

“The statistics are showing that they will deliver long term value, not just for their families but the economy at large.”

LOLADE ORESANWO – WEST AFRICA ENRG

‘I sense a change and I sense a paradigm shift’ says Africa ENRG founder Lolade Oresanwo

Lolade Oresanwo is the founder, COO and Director of West Africa ENRG, a company based in Nigeria that diverts waste from landfill, processing 2,000 tonnes of rubbish every day and converting it into electricity for schools, hospitals and more. 

The company, launched in 2014 after Oresanwo gained an MBA at Cranfield, and a career in banking where she worked for HSBC and FCMB Bank Nigeria.

It employs over 3000 people, 70 per cent of whom are women.

An important project for the company was overseeing the first Materials Recovery Facility in Nigeria, which is also the largest in West Africa. 

The company sources its finance and equipment from the UK due to quality of equipment available. They also work in partnership with UK’s Cranfield University on research and technology. 

What led you to create your company?

“There are a lot of issues around waste collection in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the biggest is around what is known as ‘collect and dump’.

“Companies will just turn up, collect the waste and then dump it. There’s no added value. 

“We took technology from the UK, adapted it a little and then brought it to Nigeria.

Problem solving

“And in doing so we’ve been able to solve another problem in addition to the waste management one. 

“There is a huge youth and female unemployment problem in the Nigeria and we’ve been able to at least address that.”

A number of experts have predicted that the role played by women in business is set to grow in the coming years. Are they right to be optimistic?

“I think a lot of women are looking beyond the initial resistance they face and  pushing ahead and I think that’s why women are becoming front and centre. 

‘A lot of women are looking beyond the resistance and pushing ahead’ says Lolade Oresanwo

“I sense a change and I sense a paradigm shift. I see a greater willingness to say ‘let’s look at the individual’ as opposed to what we’ve often had which is people thinking that only a man can do this job.

“It’s now about ‘can this person do this’ regardless of whether it’s a man or a woman and if that person can do the job then let’s give that person equal opportunity.”

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