Harvard University Center for African Studies conference highlights women entrepreneurs as socio-economic game-changers in Africa

October 26, 2020

By Rediet Alemu (Harvard College ’21) and Li-Ming Tseng (Harvard Center for African Studies Communications and External Relations Officer)

Panel 4
Panel on Strengthening Institutional and Policy Frameworks, Funding, and Networks to Advance Women Entrepreneurs


The global COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the continuing gender gaps in education, financing, and other socio-economic outcomes for women entrepreneurs on the African continent. However, impact-driven women business builders are now looking to address these gaps and find solutions for growth and development. The recently-held “Women and the Changing Face of Entrepreneurship in Africa” was a virtual conference hosted by Harvard University’s Center for African Studies on October 1 and 2, 2020. The conference came at an opportune time to bring together leading women entrepreneur’s voices with industry influencers to discuss these issues and to drive a new era of action. Professor Wafaie Fawzi, Interim Oppenheimer Faculty Director at Harvard University Center for African Studies, noted the critical agenda of reshaping the narrative of women’s entrepreneurship in Africa, with our partners in academia, civil society, and the public and private sectors. As Myma Belo-Osagie, Of Counsel at Udo Udoma & Belo-Osagie and Chair of Harvard’s Africa Advisory Board, highlighted, too often, women in African economics are seen as a refreshing change, when in reality they play quite integral roles.


“Women entrepreneurs continue to defy global trends in their levels of economic confidence and plans for workforce expansion. They are not only important job creators, but also the unsung heroes of job training, skills development, and mentoring on the continent.”
– Melanie Hawken, Founder and CEO at Lionesses of Africa Public Benefit Corporation


A consistent message that appeared throughout the conference is the importance of the involvement of women in African economic affairs. There is great potential for women entrepreneurs in Africa. Diane Côté, Chief Risk Officer at the London Stock Exchange Group and Director of Women Inspired Network, notes that “according to the African Continental Free Trade Area, female entrepreneurs have the potential to increase Africa's economic output by $20 trillion by 2050..” Dr. Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, who delivered the Hakeem and Myma Belo-Osagie Distinguished Lecture on African Business and Entrepreneurship, noted that “we cannot have women's economic empowerment without women's political empowerment.” Additionally, Sola David-Borha, Chief Executive of Africa Regions at Standard Bank Group, shared this view of economic empowerment and growth of women in Africa “when you have females in policy making positions you will begin to see a shift in gender equality.” It is necessary to have women’s voices heard within African policy-making spaces in order to produce policies which can support women entrepreneurs in building their businesses. Vanessa Moungar, Director of Gender, Women and Civil Society at the African Development Bank, shared that “when a woman earns revenue, she reinvests 90% of it to the education and prosperity of her family where men only reinvest about 35%.” Attention was also drawn to many institutions and social norms that hinder women from entering the productive labor force and being compensated fairly for their labor, once they do.


“According to the African Continental Free Trade Area, female entrepreneurs have the potential to increase Africa's economic output by $20 trillion by 2050.”
– Diane Côté, Chief Risk Officer, London Stock Exchange Group, Director of Women Inspired Network


The importance of resilience due to the colonial past affecting Africa as well as sexist stereotypes was threaded among many of the conversations during the conference. Throughout history, colonial ideologies and sexist stereotypes have been devised and upheld to hinder the growth of women and Africans. African women have long carried the burden of these intersecting discriminations. Not only has this reality made it considerably more difficult for women entrepreneurs to gain government or institutional support to start and scale their businesses, but it has also led to the justification of the gender wage gap within various African communities. Unlearning these perspectives can allow women entrepreneurs to build successful businesses, whose mere presence will allow young African children to grow up without having to internalize these ideologies. Dr. Zoe Mark’s keynote on Day 1 of the conference showed how colonialism has impacted the continent today.


“We need to imagine opportunities for a future that has not yet come into existence.” - Zoe Marks, Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School


Many of the speakers advise women entrepreneurs to change their perspectives on patriarchal, racist institutions and reimagine and invest in infrastructure that is conducive for African women. It is also important to deconstruct counterproductive policies and infrastructure, such as ones that require women to depend on their husbands to build a financial identity and those that make intra-Africa trade difficult and unappealing. As Nkemdilim Begho, Founder and CEO of Future Software Resources emphasized, “when preparation meets opportunity, magic happens.” For this reason, governments need to remove barriers that prevent women from accessing opportunities and let magic happen. Ms. Belo-Osagie also echoed this and encouraged us to develop the enabling environment that will encourage and support the many women out there whose businesses fuel the economic growth of Africa and its constituent countries.


“It’s time to reimagine business models: business models that are inclusive, business models that address the gender equity gap, business models that really foster more robust engagement by women in all sectors of the modern economy.”
- Professor Ruth Okediji, Jeremiah Smith. Jr, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Co-Director of the Berkman Klein Center


In order to keep their businesses alive during the COVID-19 pandemic, two leading women entrepreneurs are taking action in Nigeria. Kofo Akinkugbe, Founder and CEO of SecureID, and Adenike Ogunlesi, Founder & Chief Responsibility Officer of Ruff 'n' Tumble, recommend that African women entrepreneurs are adopting flexible mindset and building mental resilience. Women entrepreneurs are also taking up a more active role in shaping government policies that affect their businesses. Moreover, they highlighted the importance of strengthening, and in some cases, introducing, digital solutions such as mobile banking into their businesses to allow Africa’s women to benefit entirely from the goods, services, and capital available across online markets.


Another overarching topic that persisted throughout the conference is the importance of partnership to the growth and prosperity of African women entrepreneurs. In this regard, Ms. Belo-Osagie urged that partnerships amongst women entrepreneurs should also be geared towards providing accessible education in order to support younger women. Many of the speakers shared that they provide mentorship to other women entrepreneurs whenever they can and look for opportunities to share knowledge on various platforms, including speaking opportunities such as this conference. Additionally, women entrepreneurs who enjoy certain privileges, especially those related to class and race, should utilize their privileges to ensure an equitable distribution of resources for other women. Suzan Kereere, Global Head Merchant Sales & Acquiring at Visa Inc., shared that using self-similarity cues when learning representation is important and necessary to inspire young girls and women. She deemed these cues as necessary because “most women want to listen to each other. They are far more women interested in listening to an entrepreneur who looks like them. That’s why we have to have peer-to-peer networks.”


This conference provided inspiration for young women entrepreneurs across the continent as well as discussed how to elevate women entrepreneurship as a priority for African economies. There are already many barriers to get funding for entrepreneurs in Africa, and even more so for women.  The highlight of the conference was the discussion of practical and innovative mechanisms for overcoming the funding gap for women entrepreneurs. This included the strengthening of corporate governance and legal frameworks to guide women entrepreneurs as they expand onto the international scene. Post-conference reports and a policy paper that will highlight key facts and figures on women entrepreneurship in various sectors are currently being produced. You can view the conference proceedings here.