“Breaking the Glass Ceiling and Glass Wall”

Dr Martin R. Rupiya
, Executive APPRI and UNISA, highlights the success of African women entrepreneurs and the need to provide them with focused support to ensure that they remain successful


The World Bank, the African Development Bank (ADB), the African Globe and other macro-economic analysts have indicated that, this is the decade for Africa. The region economies have been registering above average growth rates, of nearly 6 per cent in 2013 and 2014, compared to existing Global trends. Taking one area of obvious deficit and business challenge, the African continent is the only region that is still to achieve continental Food Security and be able to feed itself beyond the targets set by Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) initiative.

This is an area that grassroots can participate and enjoys linkages from the seed and fertilizer producing manufacturing and industrial concern to supply chains within domestic markets as well as exports. And yet, Africa’s food producing capacity remains untapped with available statistics revealing that, 43 per cent of food producers are women although their contribution is hampered by a lack of technological support, adequate scientific knowledge and other resources, including fertilizers. Curiously, the noted United States based analyst firm, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundations after undertaking extensive research including: Overcoming the Gender Gap: Women Entrepreneurs Economic Drivers has identified what they refer to as the secret weapon, referring to the capacity of women as the backbone of providing job creation in economies.

During the last decade and half, several African women luminaries that have done well in business or leading large corporate organizations have come to the fore. These include – the most recent Forbes Rich listed in 2014, Isabel Dos Santos’s Africa’ female entrepreneur and investor; the Ethiopian shoe maker, Bethlehem Tilahum Alemu; the Nigerian former World Bank Managing Director, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Moroccan argan-oil beauty parlor products entrepreneur, Carmen Tal; the quartet in South Africa – of Nomhle Canca, Wendy Luhabe, Lonisa Mojale and Gloria Tomatoe Serobe who, in 1994 established the now well respected Women Investment Portfolio Holding (WIPHOLD). The challenge to these initiatives – which is the main argument of this discussion, is – without recognition and focused external encouragement and support – the personal efforts of these women will soon flounder. For instance, WIPHOLD listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1999 and within 5 years, in 2003, was forced to de-list.


This development is but a call for the African Union, the G20 and other Global Players to step in and shore up the efforts of African women that are then succumb to buffeting global marketing winds made for purposes of sustainable development. In other words, while the entrepreneurial women have been able to break through the metaphorical glass ceiling and join the company of established male dominated corporates, they still are confronted with what has been termed – the challenges of the glass wall. Without deliberate and focused specialized support – the emerging green shoots of women entrepreneurship is likely to shrivel and dry up.

The impressive growth pattern however, is not guaranteed, either to continue fueling the acceleration or allow for the trickle down to the available 1 billion majority Africans, unless we begin to recognize and explore the possibilities of bringing into play some of the potential that remains marginalized. This is the ability and capacity of African Women as entrepreneurs in business, contributing to food security, tackling the absence of large-scale, infrastructure and investment on the continent.

The assistance required to support obvious high flying and enterprising African women in the public and private sector as well as the informal sector, sometimes known as the “female economy” is to take the recommendations provided by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation that we can distill as:

  1. The international community needs to create a not-for-profit organization that is able to identify potential cases that, with minimal resources, benefit from being assisted with strategic – commercial direction in initiatives, adequately funded and with appropriate human skills to continue to successfully navigate the complex and sometimes unforgiving business world linked to sub-regional and continental development.
  2. Secondly, the existing success stories must be made readily available in order to serve as role models to other aspiring female candidates.
  3. Third, a recommendation was made to motivate and provide opportunities for African female entrepreneurs to join the science and technology bandwagon, including placing some of them on boards as well as build associations with hi-tech companies and corporations.
  4. Finally, the strategic entity established – in the event that this recommendation materializes – must point old and new talent towards the gaps of Food Security, investment in emerging large-scale infrastructure such as dams, airports and bridges as well as new industries and property portfolios serving the emerging Middle classes on the continent.

In seeking to identify and isolate African Women luminaries, the discussion must not ignore the real backbone of African economies – the informal sector and the vibrant markets – whose mainstay is the innovative women who have created these sectors in every country, with little or no assistance and in some cases, even against the odds.  In a recent Gallup Poll survey of 18 Sub-Saharan countries on African women’s banking tendencies, the report found that, while the women owned 50 per cent of available assets, only 16 per cent were holding bank accounts. These findings were also supported by the United Nations African Renewal project. Successful examples and alternatives are readily available with the Indian sub-continent leading the way in connecting women without collateral into the small loans and banking industry against impressive track records of repayments. This example has not been introduced onto the African continent and again, the not-for-profit organization may provide the policy research intervention that would ultimately offer credible options for Women entrepreneurs to step in and provide the much needed service. Africa and its member-states continue to suffer from a lack of engagement with Think Tanks whose role is to offer expertise and guide towards comparative and diligently researched public policy initiatives. If African women show courage and move into this vacuum, they would be breaking the barriers of ignorance and reduce risk taking by potential investors.

Hence, the challenge that continues to exist is the absence of a link between the interests and investment capacity of the luminaries with their sisters at the bottom of the rung and sees how this synergy can then be exploited for everyone’s benefit. In other words, the suggestion we have made on setting up the Not-for-profit organization that has capacity to provide research and policy driven options can also consider coming up with commercial platforms that enhances the interests and capacities of both in a mutually reinforcing manner.