Women in Tech and Leadership: What Does the Startup Ecosystem in Africa Need to Do?

Women in Tech and Leadership: What Does the Startup Ecosystem in Africa Need to Do?

Women in Tech and Leadership: What Does the Startup Ecosystem in Africa Need to Do?

The startup and entrepreneurship world, much like the rest of the business world and the world at large, is skewed in favor of men. The African continent is no exception. Let us try to unpack and delve deeper into the challenges faced by women in tech and leadership in the startup ecosystem in Africa before heading on to the possible solutions to these challenges.

Challenges faced by women in tech and leadership in Africa

Small-scale ventures with fewer opportunity to grow and scale up: Even in countries like Uganda, Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, etc. where there are 20-30% women-led startups/ enterprises, we will find that the ventures are often small businesses with few or no employees and lower opportunities and scope for growth and scaling up.

The main reason behind this is that women are socialized to be prudent and careful in their decisions, not taking too many risks and aiming for things that are certain. This is against the very idea of business which requires higher levels of risk-taking to grow and succeed. Due to their socialization, African women also tend to self-limit themselves saying that ‘they are better off in the kitchen’ or that ‘their duties as wives, mothers or daughter matter most so they should not scale up their businesses for they may not have time for their duties as women’.

Fewer women in tech: The number of startups and enterprises led by women in the tech space are much lower than those led by men. The main contributory factor to this is that the patriarchal norms and stereotypes that the world (not just African women) is socialized into, limit the tech space. Of course, there are also cultural and social barriers specific to Africa (as mentioned earlier) that limit the entry of women into the science and tech fields.

In their girlhood too, they get limited opportunities and exposure to STEM or similar programs that build a scientific and tech fervor in them. With popular stereotypes like ‘girls aren’t good at math and science’ bogging them down and draining their confidence, only a small proportion of them pursue science/ tech education or enter the startup space. So, women who do enter tech are few and even those who enter have faced one too many challenges.

Another important factor is that girls and women in Africa have limited access to the internet and mobile phones as found by Vodafone’s study on the continent. (https://qz.com/africa/1420938/girls-have-less- access-to-mobile-phones-than-boys-study-shows/) The study found that a majority of African girls do not own mobile phones and must borrow from family members and even those who own mobile phones do not have the money to purchase airtime or data to make their phones functional. So, many girls limit their usage of mobile phones to texting and calling while boys leverage mobile phones and the internet as windows to the world – browsing and learning new things, networking and finding jobs.

Poorly funded ventures: According to a 2016 report by Venture Capital for Africa, only 9% of startups had women leadership. As per the findings of the International Finance Corporation in 2017, the continent received a total funding of USD 500 million out of which only a measly 5.3% venture capital was received by women-led startups or those with women co-founders and the total funding such startups received between 2012-17 was only 9%! (https://www.appsafrica.com/the-underserved-market-in-venture-capital- women/)

Even though the number of women-led startups that applied for early-stage funding is significantly high, the number of them that actually receive funding or get incorporated into accelerator programs is disproportionately low. Accordingly, the rate at which women-led startups graduate with further stages of funding is appallingly low.

Funder biases: There are only around 10-13% women in the decision-making side of funding which means a majority of decisions on where the capital and funds should be deployed is made by men who have their own biases permeating from their socialization. Women leaders and women in tech have found that funders tend to have biases favoring tech startups while many of the women-led ventures are not tech- reliant or technology is not a key factor.

No collateral -> No loans: Women-led ventures find it difficult to get loans or debt capital for their ventures because many women in Africa own little no property that can be used as collateral. Severe lack of role models, leaders and mentors: This is a self-perpetuating imbalance. There are fewer women leaders and women in technology to start with so there are fewer role models, leaders and mentors to look up to and the vicious circle continues.

Proactive steps that the African ecosystem must take to bridging the gender gaps

Starting early: Initiatives must start right from girlhood aimed to get girls and women interested in tech. They must be put in place at the school, college and university levels. STEM programs, entrepreneurship education and leadership training must be included in the curriculum.

Capacity building and skill development: For women entrepreneurs and startup founders, capacity building and skill development workshops, bootcamps, coding camps and trainings must be organized. These initiatives could be aimed at leadership, strategy, business management, technology adoption or any other aspects of running startups. It is important that these are aimed and organized for women alone as they find it easier to share their challenges and issues and collectively learn from each other.

Policy level and corporate level initiatives: There needs to be political will, policy level and corporate level initiatives to bring women into tech and hone their leadership skills. A diversity and inclusion policy could be put into place so that women from all walks of life and experiences are able to thrive in the startup environment, not just women coming from backgrounds of privilege and power.

Inclusive and diverse investor community: It is equally important to have a more inclusive investor community. VCs must have a more diverse leadership. This will help create a positive spiral and break the self-perpetuating circles of fewer women in leadership roles, fewer role models and fewer women in tech, leadership and business.

Mentoring and support: Successful entrepreneurs who have fought all odds to thrive in the startup ecosystem and drive their ventures towards success believe that women entrepreneurs (practicing and aspiring) need continuous mentoring and support to break away from self-imposed restrictions and societal stereotypes. In this blog, Rosemary Egbo, CEO of Giantrose Consultancy, throws light on how she and many women entrepreneurs are bullied by male counterparts who try to tarnish and bring down the confidence levels of women by telling them they are bound to fail because they are women. (https://www.business.com/articles/female-entrepreneur-challenges-in-africa/) Under such circumstances, the need for mentoring and support groups aimed at motivating women entrepreneurs, aiding them with decision-making support, inspiring them and propelling them forward.

Networking opportunities: It is through networking that entrepreneurs meet investors, mentors and angels who can help accelerate their business and scale up. While men tend to flock together and network with one another, it may not be the case with women. These boys’ clubs (like with every other industry) tend to wield great power in the startup scene. It is important then to get women together in all women’s networks for them to learn, share and grow.

The situation is slowly changing and there are women-only networks, communities and initiatives aimed at bringing and retaining women in tech, entrepreneurship and leadership. This means, though late, we are on the right track.

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