Women entrepreneurs are key to unlocking Africa’s economic future

Simone Cooper Head of Business Clients at Standard Bank South Africa (winner of the Efma SME Banker of the Year 2021 award).

As social restrictions are lifted, the South African economy has an opportunity to apply key lessons from the disruption to small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs). As South Africa returns to a new normal, Simone Cooper Head of Business Clients at Standard Bank South Africa (winner of the Efma SME Banker of the Year 2021 award) explains how women entrepreneurs are key to turning our economy around by creating sustainable and inclusive job growth.

At the first Women’s Economic Assembly of 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed his dissatisfaction with the level of participation of women-owned businesses in key sectors such as steel, energy, mining and agriculture. The president pledged to prioritize women entrepreneurs in public procurement, especially as women are disproportionately affected by the current unemployment crisis.

As the full economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded in South Africa, it became clear that women were bearing the brunt of the disruptions, especially those working in small, medium and micro businesses.

With the South African economy registration its worst unemployment rate on record, 35.3% in the fourth quarter of 2021, it should be noted that even in these dire circumstances, Statistics SA reports that men are more likely to be in paid employment than women, regardless of race. Women are also more likely than men to do unpaid work. Moreover, the overall proportion of men in employment is higher than that of women, with more men than women participating in the labor market.

At the end of 2021, 50.8% of women were unemployed (extended definition), compared to 42.1% of men. Although there are more women in the population, men outnumber women in all sectors, in formal and informal jobs. The only exception concerns private domestic employment where women, who mainly work as domestic servants, outnumber men.

And even when women were in formal employment, Statistics SA reported that men continued to outnumber women in decision-making positions in most sectors.

The impact of such imbalances on the lives of individuals is enormous; the clearest being that women are more likely to be economically dependent on men, further perpetuating social ills such as gender-based violence. At no time has this been more apparent than during the first Covid-19 lockdowns, when cases of domestic violence soared.

Achieving true diversity through gender parity in the South African economy is key to protecting women from the wide range of exploitation that stems from financial inequality. More generally, however, various studies show that gender diversity also improves workforce efficiency and effectiveness by introducing new business opportunities, driving innovation and improving competitiveness.

Significantly, a recent study appearing in the Harvard Business Review reported that there was a correlation between greater gender diversity and improved performance, provided it is culturally accepted that gender diversity matters.

However, the solutions to gender imbalances in the workplace do not lie with established companies operating in what has so far been understood as the formal economy. As automation, technology, digitalization and artificial intelligence increasingly disrupt the nature of business and the gig economy increasingly reshapes traditional concepts of employment and compensation, the creation consistent and substantial new jobs, especially in developing markets, must come from the SME sector.

While the SME sector is undoubtedly where innovation and new ideas thrive, it is also where the risks lie. This presents both a challenge and an exciting opportunity for those looking to finance the growth and expansion of the SME sector.

Often SMEs need advice and business support as much or more than they need money. This offers donors an opportunity to better understand the value chains and broader ecosystems in which SMEs operate. Understanding this ecosystem – particularly if a bank is already actively financing other players in these value chains – helps to understand and assess the potential of an SME and to lend with confidence.

In short, taking an ecosystem view – as opposed to a collateral debt view – unlocks the ability to look beyond money, recognizing that businesses and their owners also need guides, models and mentorship opportunities to grow. An ecosystem view also broadens the valuation lens, considering other criteria besides cash or physical collateral in constructing informed finance solutions.

While having an intimate understanding of client companies and their capabilities is essential, being present in multiple value chains across the entire business ecosystem in South Africa also gives Standard Bank a huge advantage. in the assessment of opportunities.

Standard Bank has, for example, been able to directly finance skills development projects such as Sebenza Mbokodo, Basali Development Programme, Timbali, Mme re ka Thusa and Femtrepreneur, and also forge partnerships with the International Women’s Forum of South Africa ( IFWSA) by applying an ecosystem lens – rather than collateral debt – to supporting and growing SMEs, especially those owned and operated by women.

The Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs report revealed that South Africa moved up one spot to rank 37th (out of 65 economies) on the 2021 index compared to the previous year. Moreover, although the rate of female entrepreneurial activity has declined in most economies during the pandemic, South Africa is one of only 12 economies where the rate of female entrepreneurial activity has increased.

We believe that support initiatives of this nature have contributed to this increase.


Recognizing that diversity matters to everyone, as a company we must continue to drive gender transformation by virtually empowering women to take on their rightful role as entrepreneurs, owners and leaders of the economy. South African.

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