Women of worth

If necessity is the master of invention, then it’s safe to say that South African women have an impressively long list of needs, especially when it comes to business. Recent research into our country’s entrepreneurial frontier indicates that 33% of our land’s female entrepreneurial activity is borne out of necessity. But although the number of women entrepreneurs in South Africa is on the rise, it seems as though the number of female forgers falls short of emerging country benchmarks.

Currently, South Africa’s total entrepreneurial activity hovers around the 7% mark, falling miserably short of the 24% activity rate recorded in Colombia, and glaringly below Mexico (13%), Brazil (11%) and Indonesia (11.8%). Sadly, our entrepreneurial activity is heavily male-dominated with South African men claiming 62% of the entrepreneurial pie. While entrepreneurship in South Africa is increasing, it remains concerning that female entrepreneurship has remained largely unchanged over the past few years and remains significantly behind the curve when compared to what our female counterparts are achieving in other emerging markets.

With entrepreneurship being a well-recognised catalyst for economic growth, it appears we need to do more to encourage and support women in this area of economics. Latest DTI statistics indicate that funding remains the greatest obstacle standing in the way of female-inspired business passion and taking the product to its intended market. Only 4% of female entrepreneurs obtain funding from government grants, while 20% manage to secure formal bank loans. Encouragingly the Women Entrepreneurial Fund (WEF), brainchild of the Industrial Development Corporation, has ring-fenced an substantial R400 million for women-owned business until 2015, which bodes well for this sector’s growth. Hindered by lack of adequate funding, female entrepreneurship is also being hampered by outdated attitudes in certain communities. Lack of economic education has given rise to a widely-held belief in the more rural areas that employment is more valuable than entrepreneurship – a mindset which serves only to chisel away at the courage and confidence required by any brave pioneer. And as any entrepreneur will know, starting one’s own company requires more than a dash of courage. As Adrian Gore once said, “Becoming an entrepreneur is like jumping out of an aeroplane with silkworms instead of a parachute and hoping they’re over-achievers.”

Despite the range of obstacles facing entrepreneurial-minded women, it seems that South Africa women are not short of talent and passion. We’ve got more than a generous supply of female entrepreneurs whose energies and creativity have been unleashed by South Africa’s vibrant young democracy – and their stories are ever-more endearing because of the historical challenges they’ve had to overcome. Through ingenuity coupled with necessity and ambition, women such as Shona McDonald have placed South Africa on the entrepreneurial map. Cape Town-based Shona started her business, Shonaquip, after having a child born with cerebral palsy. Beginning as a close corporation in 1992, Shona began selling wheelchair buggies and support devices for disabled children. These devices were designed and built to cater for her own disabled child because there weren’t any locally made wheelchairs that fitted her needs. After having started off with two employees, Shonaquip is now a globally-recognized social enterprise whose equipment is endorsed by the World Health Organisation and SA’s Department of Health. Today, Shonaquip generates over 6 000 wheelchairs every year, generates more than R28 million in revenue and employs 65 people, many of whom are also disabled.

Linda Olga Nghatsane, a professional nurse and lecturer, deservedly donned the title Business Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007 for her business success in farming. In 2004, she purchased a 10 hectare piece of land near Nelspruit, most of which was just bush, and turned it into a successful farming venture turning over R2 million per year. She bought the land with her own money and cleared the bush by hand. Starting off with just 1 000 chickens, she managed to expand her business ten-fold in as many months. She also produces oyster mushrooms, strawberries and a range of other vegetables. In addition to the farm itself, Linda also launched a business called Abundant Life Skills (ALS) that offers training and consultancy. She’s also the chairperson of the Nelspruit Agricultural Development Committee where she uses her time effectively to motivate women to become involved in agricultural projects as a means of fighting poverty.

Proving that entrepreneurship is not only about making money, Lesley-Ann van Selm made her mark pioneering social entrepreneurship in the form of Khulisa Crime Prevention Initiatives. Khulisa, a not-for-profit company, was launched in 1997 to assist in the rehabilitation and reintegration process for juvenile offenders while they are still in prison, making radical changes to the South African criminal justice landscape. The fact that they aren’t driven by money certainly doesn’t detract from the overwhelming success achieved by these nothing-less-than inspirational social entrepreneurs. Innately equipped with an uncommon ability to recognise gaps in service delivery and innovate viable solutions through donor funding being the common denominators, these social entrepreneurs are seemingly driven by Ghandi’s “be the change you want to see in the world” mantra. Not confined to banks and boardrooms, sport has also benefited from entrepreneurial enthusiasm. At age 37, Anne Siroky became South Africa’s top volleyball player and started The Future Factory in two schools in the Western Cape. Today her sports academy operates in over fifty schools in the province and works with more than 150 000 children.

The list of energized, successful and inspirational female entrepreneurs is nothing short of impressive, and somewhat humbling. There’s no doubt we’re a nation of women driven to succeed and more-than-adequately equipped to innovate in the face of necessity. We need to engage and motivate each other to take initiatives, challenge status quos and innovate products or services born of necessity. Taking the courageous step from employment to entrepreneurship can be breathtakingly audacious but downright rewarding. August is Women’s Month and the challenge put to all aspiring women entrepreneurs is to jump off the plane, throw up the figurative silkworms and believe in your ability to superbly over-achieve.

Women of great worth: From left, Shona McDonald, Linda Olga Nghatsane, Anne Siroky and Lesley-Ann van Selm

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