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South Africa needs more women starting and running their own businesses, if the economy is to fire on all cylinders and create much-needed growth and employment. Despite the significant progress that the country has made over the past two decades in advancing the empowerment of women, more still needs to be done when it comes to women entrepreneurship. The world of business remains pretty much a man’s world.

Recent trends indicate that the number of self-employed women in South Africa is in fact in decline, which means the full participation of women in the economy is being eroded. At a global level, statistics show that while women make up about 50% of the world population and 40% of the global workforce, they own only about 1% of the world’s wealth. In comparison to men, women’s unemployment levels remain higher both in educated and less educated categories. Although these statistics are global, local figures tend to mirror these trends.

Women entrepreneurs in South Africa, however, still face more obstacles in starting their own businesses than their male counterparts. This is notwithstanding the fact that women generally bring certain unique abilities to entrepreneurship. We know that given the opportunity, women would invest most of their income into their families and communities. This means that putting more wealth in the hands of women could have a significant positive multiplier effect on the economy.

Raw deal

The multi-dimensional challenges that women continue to face include financing and credibility as business owners and managers. Access to finance and credit in particular remains a major constraint for many. Women – and rural black women in particular – continue to have a raw deal in this regard. They have difficulties accessing finance for various reasons, including poverty, limited employment in the formal sector, and cultural barriers to land and property ownership. Access to bank funding is also on average more restrictive for women-owned small and medium enterprises.

Added to these, other barriers include socialisation networks and practices, family roles and possible lack of business contacts. Social conventions, for example, dictate the roles of men and women in the household, workforce and society. These conventions tend to have a negative effect on the ability of women to start and grow their businesses. These disadvantages, therefore, can explain higher failure rates and lower growth rates for women-owned businesses.

Indeed it is not true to suggest that it is all doom and gloom for women. On a positive note though, a number of women have made major inroads in business and their impact is just slowly beginning to be felt. For example, there are many women in Africa who have gone beyond making handicrafts or running spazza shops or taverns to becoming successful business owners with vast empires in various sectors of the economy.

Their successful ventures have translated into high financial returns and created many jobs. For these women, business success has not always come easily. Most of them remain the exception rather than the norm, and their success has come largely through a combination of hard work and unbridled tenacity and sometimes sheer luck.

Better future

Despite the inequalities between men and women in business, there is lot that can be done to build a better future for female entrepreneurs. The challenges women face provide opportunities for women themselves, various stakeholders, including the NGOs, government, financial institutions and other private sector players in addressing the issues. We all need to become more committed to fostering an environment that supports women entrepreneurs.

At Barclays Africa we are doing our bit in trying to remove the obstacles to business opportunities and economic participation that women face. We are doing this partly by providing various forms of both financial and nonfinancial support. Through a number of initiatives we are also identifying and building networks of women entrepreneurs to empower them to successfully own and operate their businesses.

Through our annual “Women in Business Series”, for instance, we are bringing together a strong circle of female mentors to accelerate women-led entrepreneurship across all sectors. Although our entrepreneurship development programmes are designed to support both men and women, young and old, we find that support from peers as well as more organised support and formal entrepreneurship activities, are important for everyone, but particularly so for women.

At a much broader level, we should consider finance facilities that are dedicated to women-owned SMEs, with commitments to help finance new projects in areas where there is great potential empower women and grow the economy. The idea is to increase access to capital for women-owned businesses. Barclays Africa already has such a facility in the form of its Women Development Fund.

We believe such efforts could enable more women entrepreneurs to affordably invest in their businesses. In the long run, this would create new jobs and significantly contribute to economic growth