200 Women Entrepreneurs in Emerging Markets Tell their Stories of Challenges and Uncertainties

One day of 2000, Nadine Mabiola, a photographer living in Canada, received a phone call. Her house in Kinshasa DR Congo (DRC) had been looted and destroyed. In a matter of minutes, everything had been stolen, including a photo equipment she had just imported from Germany.

In the preceding decade she had graduated from the University of Ottawa in Canada, then she had perfected her craft in New York. Over the years, with her clientele increasing, she had assembled a full studio in Kinshasa.

But “suddenly…I lost a huge investment…I lost everything” she tells me, as we sit in her flowery veranda to escape the exuberant Congolese sun. Overnight she was forced to shut down her professional ambitions and imagine a different future for herself and her family.

Today Mrs Mabiola owns and runs Le Choix de Nadine, an organic food company that is a preferred supplier to select upscale hotels, bakeries and supermarkets in Kinshasa.

Yet, despite this remarkable turnaround of her fortunes, Mrs Mabiola is unsure about materializing the opportunities now coming her way, from the foreign investors who recently showed interest in helping her scale up to the orders and queries coming from across DRC.

As I frequently travel across emerging markets for work, I meet with dozens of female entrepreneurs, from Mrs Salwa Akhannouch, the CEO of Morocco Mall, to Mrs Elalie Sianard who co-runs an agricultural cooperative in Congo Brazzaville, to Ms Ange Irankunda whose company manufactures briquettes from biodegradable waste in Burundi, to Maria McCloy, an accessories and shoe designer in South Africa ; many tell me they are unsure about taking their business to the next level, some kill their own business plan, others shy away from positioning themselves as leaders.

What’s holding women back when it comes to starting and growing a business, and taking ownership of their achievements? What are their challenges? What can we learn from their needs and approaches in view of supporting their growth?

To find out, in partnership with the world-leading hotelier, Radisson Blu M’Bamou Palace Hotel Brazzaville, my team and I have co-organized the ‘Forum Femmes Entrepreneures’ in the Congo a few weeks ago. On this first-of-its-kind platform, 200-plus female innovators, founders, and entrepreneurs, coming from three different countries (DRC, Cameroon, Congo Brazzaville) connected with investors, sponsors, industry experts, and mentors. Here is a few picks from the wealth of insights.

The ‘Forum Femmes Entrepreneures’ offered mentoring sessions in different formats. Post-event, I have conducted an additional series of one-on-one mentoring sessions in two cities. At these sessions, many mentees came with their partners, product prototypes, and business plans.

Confidence Comes First

Mrs Oustacha Taty owns and runs an event decoration company that’s been steadily growing since 2013. In parallel, she owns a grocery store in one of the country’s biggest markets. Then, on a 10-acre plot of land she has recently acquired, she plans to develop an agricultural project. With these assets and a 20-member workforce, Mrs Taty is an entrepreneur brimming with strong self-confidence, you would assume.

Yet, in a facebook message she sent me, she says “I don’t know where I am in my businesses (…) I do know I have talents. But I no longer have self-confidence. I get frustrated and I really need help. I came to a point where I need a mentor.” Mrs Taty went on to sign up for one of my mentorship programmes.

Like Mrs Taty, a great majority of women say they are struggling with self-doubt.

Young women say they lost self-confidence in their first years in the professional world due to setbacks and false starts, a lack of role models, mentors, and connections.

Seasoned and established entrepreneurs say self-confidence fluctuates and erodes with time passing. Having worked twice as hard as men, having fought difficult battles for every milestone in their professional journey, they feel they are yet to be recognized for their achievements. They wonder “Is it really worth it?” when it comes to taking on new projects.

Ultimately, women say that, because self-doubt cripples them from a young age, because it affects them even when they have capital and resources; coaching and mentoring shall be part of their career early on and throughout.

At the Forum, all mentoring sessions went sold out. This led me to conduct a follow-up series of forty-four one-on-one sessions in the country’s two largest cities.

36 percent of the participants are in retail. In developing countries, women-led businesses tend to be concentrated in the retail and services sectors where growth opportunities are lower. They are rarely in more profitable sectors such as construction or software.

Those Who Need It the Most Want to Be In

You regularly hear that, thanks to high levels of mobile penetration in Africa, consumers are adopting fast internet. Women are reportedly leading mobile data consumption. We therefore made our event marketing 100-percent web-based.

That was a mistake.

“Connected Africa” makes nice headlines but the reality is much more complicated. For a start, mobile data is expensive for the average African and full mobile coverage remains far from achieved. Consequently, many populations aren’t touched and don’t feel engaged by mobile-only campaigns and internet-based models.

The vast majority of Africa’s women entrepreneurs are independents, hustlers, builders, and powerhouses in the informal world. There, they use mobile for various activities but not to get a bank account, to buy groceries, to purchase clothing, to register their children in schools, let alone to book tickets to an entrepreneur event. At the same time, they are the very group who need access to knowledge resources the most.

After a decade of hard hustle in the informal, Ms Jocelyne Diata is rising as a provider of affordable second-hand computers in DRC. Thanks to an expanding network of collectors, repairmen, resellers, and dealers; she recycles and rebrands used computers and is responsible for their new life in web cafés, schools, and offices nationwide. She is in no directory and owns no stores. At 44, she bankrolls her siblings’ businesses including a produce transportation company and a carpentry workshop. In total, she has created about 65 jobs.

But Ms Diata has never set foot in a bank and never used a financial product. Relying on alternative ways to save the lion’s share of her revenues, clearly, she is part of the millions of unbanked women who represent a huge potential to add billions to the formal financial services sector. “Sure, I really want to talk to banks” she says when I finally meet her at an impromptu meeting.

In a bid to have diversity at the Forum, we took our outreach effort to the real-world. Leveraging our years-long field research experience across Africa, we managed to convene meetings in traditional open markets and other unformal settings.

Women want to feel and see respect on the basis that they create jobs (particularly for the most disadvantaged fractions of the population), they are great at repaying loans and saving money, and are catalysts for economic development.

They want inclusion. Not the notion or the vision, but rather the reality of all stakeholders being on board and working to make it come to life.

More than men, I found, they want expertise that’s deeply knowledgeable of their unique experience, and practical solutions they can implement swiftly.

For a majority of entrepreneurs, the Forum was their first-ever contact with a mentor. In side-conversations, I’m giving plenty of explanations, demonstrations, information, and I’m answering a recurrent question: “How can I tell you more about my business and my issues?”

They’ve Had Sponsorship, Now They Want Inspiration

As a sales warrior in Europe years ago, I won and managed huge sponsorships. But when the team put the sponsorships responsibility in my hands, my initial reaction was…perplexity. “Is there really a need for a sponsor, in the traditional sense of “sponsor”?” I wondered. Because the data from our registration system was telling a certain story.

Out of the 392 who registered on our website, we selected 248 participants. Out of the 248 participants, 219 responded to the survey.

Although 45% of the respondents say the lack of access to capital is the number one barrier in their career, a superior number saw intangibles as the biggest reason for participating: ideas, inspiration and motivation for 42%, and community and connections for 21%. That’s 63% who were telling us that beyond having investors and sponsors; they wanted someone who could offer something deep and powerful to nurture their start, growth, ideas, learnings, and ambitions.

The door we chose to knock at was the right one. Mr Patrick D’Hoore, the Managing Director of Radisson Blu Brazzaville, exceeded participants’ expectations with a passionate in-person delivery of real stories and concrete examples of ‘Responsible Business’.

Both aspiring entrepreneurs and established players say they find the best inspiration and motivation in authentic sources who can demonstrate a verifiable, lasting impact or share practices that are applicable in their immediate environment.

Sandry’n Nchotu came from Cameroon with an entrepreneur friend. In addition to international attendants, the Forum also attracted entrepreneurs from all across the country.

Risks Knock at Their Door, They Say “Welcome!”

As the Congo is still plunged in grave, oil-crisis-originating economic difficulties, as both DRC and Cameroon are still struggling with political crises and moribund economies, women expected to fasten their seatbelt and wait for the turbulences to pass, while shutting down their entrepreneurial ambitions. They are either risk-averse, or represent risky business, say certain stereotypes.

In the mentoring sessions, women told us about their approach to risks:

When I ask how they reconcile their high sensitivity to risks and their willingness to incur the substantial costs coming with participating to conventions and conferences — 34% of the audience travelled internationally, tens of attendants took an unpaid leave; they say that they consider coaching, mentoring, and education, for themselves, their family, employees or partners is an opportunity.

In fact, in their journey, women constantly do cost-benefits analyses in the face of change or opportunities. They go for the “good risk”. When entering the mentoring programme, Mrs Taty was in the final month of a project management training program that she had taken after completing a week-long wedding planning training program in Côte d’Ivoire. In total, in the last 18 months, she had invested in five different programs that most around her consider risks. She says she carefully assessed them all: “I’m willing to enter a new field, but I want to study or know it very well first. I do take risks, but I check, I calculate a lot first. I’m proud that we just don’t jump into something. We’re doing this for the long-term.”

Patrick Gaincko is a mentor and co-founder of Womentrepreneurs which works in impact investing and engages a growing community of female entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

More insights: pgaincko@womentrepreneurs.co