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Paving the path for women-led SMEs’ success

Across Africa, empowering women entrepreneurs is not just a moral imperative, but a matter of economic necessity. This was the overriding message on the first day of Absa Bank-backed InspireMe Conference 2024 which seeks to demonstrate that when women succeed, economies flourish.

The significance of empowering women entrepreneurs, especially those leading SMEs, cannot be overstated. The forum’s chief guest, President William Ruto’s Advisor on Women’s Rights, Dr. Harriet Chiggai, noted, “This two-day Absa InspireMe conference is a space for each and every one of us to connect, share experiences, and develop the tools and knowledge to take our businesses to even greater heights.”

“It is also a call to action as a community to dismantle the barriers that still stand in the way of women’s entrepreneurial success,” Dr. Chiggai, told Women-led SME Founders and CEOs from across Africa, including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Mauritius, The Gambia, South Africa as well as Zambia.

Economic impact of women entrepreneurs

Women-led businesses are increasingly recognized as key drivers of economic growth across Africa. According to data from the World Bank, women own 58 percent of all African SMEs, contributing about 30 percent to the continent’s GDP.

Despite their huge contributions, women entrepreneurs face considerable challenges, primarily in accessing finance, market information, and establishing networks that are critical for growth and expansion.

This disparity is part of the critical focus points of the Absa InspireMe Conference, as stated by Absa Bank Kenya Managing Director and CEO Abdi Mohamed, who said, “The two-day forum aimed at facilitating stakeholder engagement and discussions to address business challenges that exist for women-owned businesses and identify opportunities for the business.”

The economic potential of empowering women entrepreneurs is immense. Advisory and strategy firm McKinsey suggests that fully integrating women into the economy could add up to $12 trillion to the global GDP by 2025.

This projection underscores the necessity of advancing women’s economic empowerment not only in Kenya but across Africa, an objective that aligns with the goals of the Absa InspireMe Conference.

Absa Bank Kenya Managing Director and CEO Abdi Mohamed.

Addressing barriers to finance

One of the outstanding hurdles for women-led SMEs in Africa is accessing finance. Quite often, traditional banking systems require collateral that many women entrepreneurs do not have, leading to stagnation or collapse of their investments.

Recognizing this challenge, Absa has joined forces with the Africa Guarantee Fund to cover 75 percent of Absa’s risk exposure, thereby increasing lending to SMEs.

Jules Ngakam, CEO of Africa Guarantee Fund, explained, “Absa has made the choice to support businesses that operate at grassroots level. This is where we generate a lot of impact but at the same time, it comes with a significant amount of risk because the vast majority of these SMEs do not have collateral.”

The role of international collaboration

Concurrent with the Absa InspireMe Conference, select women-led businesses from sectors such as textiles and apparel, agrifood, handicrafts, and accessories are engaging with potential buyers from the UK.

This initiative, which is part of the Kenya-UK Trade Mission, aims to create tangible market linkages and export opportunities for women-led businesses.

Additionally, representatives from the International Trade Centre SheTrades Hubs are exploring potential collaborations with UK delegates from the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, Industry Chamber International, and West and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Learning from each other

Over the last three years, the Absa InspireMe Conference has united over 8,000 women across the continent, offering a unique platform for mission-driven women business leaders to share their stories, experiences, and expertise.

Under the theme, “Empowering Your Story for Growth,” this year’s forum reflects Absa Bank’s commitment to a customer-centric approach, which is embodied in the pan-African lender’s new brand promise, “Your Story Matters”.

The forum features tens of sessions and workshops that are focused on various aspects of business growth and development, with key speakers holding discussions on financial literacy and digital transformation as well as insights on leadership and market access and expansion.

Overall, these sessions seek to equip women-led SME Founders and CEOs with the knowledge and skills critical to overcoming the barriers they face and helping scale their businesses.

President William Ruto’s Advisor on Women’s Rights, Dr. Harriet Chiggai.

Read also: Absa Bank’s growth strategy yields 34% net profit rise

The broader implications for African economies

The empowerment of women entrepreneurs has broader implications for African economies. As the World Economic Forum estimates, the global workforce is set to go up by 910 million people between 2010 and 2050, out of which 830 million of these additions will come from Africa.

MSMEs, particularly those led by women, are the best positioned to address some of the continent’s most pressing challenges, including unemployment and economic inequality.

Supporting women-led SMEs can lead to more inclusive and sustainable economic growth as their businesses are highly likely to reinvest their earnings into their communities, leading to improved education, healthcare, and overall living standards.

Additionally, women entrepreneurs tend to employ other women, creating a ripple effect that extends beyond individual businesses to entire communities and regions.

The role of policy and advocacy

To fully unlock the potential of women entrepreneurs, supportive policies and advocacy are crucial. Governments and financial institutions must work together to create an enabling environment that facilitates access to finance, markets, and networks.

Policies that promote gender equality in business, offer mentorship and training programs, and reduce regulatory barriers can greatly enhance the growth prospects of women-led SMEs.

In this aspect, Dr. Chiggai called for concerted efforts to dismantle the barriers that hinder women’s entrepreneurial success, highlighting the importance of community support and collective action to drive change.

“This conference is a call to action as a community to dismantle the barriers that still stand in the way of women’s entrepreneurial success,” she noted.

As women entrepreneurs continue to rise across Africa, their contributions will be instrumental in shaping the continent’s economic trajectory. The lessons learned and partnerships established at the Absa InspireMe Conference will inspire and empower the next generation of women business leaders, driving sustainable growth and development across the continent.

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